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Las Vegas Motor Speedway drew criticism before IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon's death

Before the green flag dropped on the final race of Dan Wheldon's life, IndyCar drivers worried publicly about the dangers of a revamped Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Too much speed. Too many cars. Too little space.

"All it takes is one mistake by one driver, and it could be huge consequences," Boca Raton resident Ryan Hunter-Reay said before Sunday's Las Vegas Indy 300. "This should be a nail-biter for the fans, and it's going to be insane for the drivers."

The one mistake was fatal. Wheldon, a St. Petersburg resident, died Sunday from injuries sustained in a fiery, 15-car wreck on Lap 11. The Clark County, Nev., coroner told the Associated Press that an autopsy showed the two-time Indianapolis 500 champion died of blunt head trauma. He was 33.

Two other drivers were seriously injured. Pippa Mann had surgery on a burned finger, and JR Hildebrand suffered a bruised sternum. They were released from Las Vegas hospitals after staying overnight Sunday, IndyCar officials said.

Before, during and after the race, drivers — including Wheldon — said the race could be fast and treacherous.

On a warmup lap, ABC's announcers asked Wheldon if he thought speeds would exceed 222 mph — more than twice as fast as the pole speed on the street course at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. He said they'd go even faster.

"This is going to be a spectacle," Wheldon said from his cockpit as he weaved his car right and left to warm up his Firestone tires for the season finale.

"This is a great way to go out. …"

• • •

IndyCar hadn't visited Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 11 years.

In 2006, the track made its turns steeper, to 20-degree banking, to let cars go faster. The pole speed increased from 208.5 mph in 2000 to 222 mph this year.

The last time a track other than the monstrous 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway was that fast was 2003 at Texas — when Kenny Brack's car ripped against a fence in one of the most horrific wrecks in racing history.

"The hot spot is every inch of the 1.5 miles," driver James Hinchcliffe said of Vegas before the race. "The racing is so close, and when something goes wrong, it can really go wrong."

The close racing started early Sunday. By the second turn, drivers bunched into three-wide rows. On Lap 6, two cars brushed wheels at more than 200 mph but didn't slow down.

The 1.5-mile oval was cramped with Wheldon and more part-time drivers than usual. IndyCar offered half of a $5 million bonus to any non-series regular who won the 300-mile event to try to boost excitement for a sport with sinking interest.

"I was watching practice (Thursday) and it was unbelievable," IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard told ESPN.com three days before race. "Three wide at more than 220 mph."

The 34-car field was the second-largest in series history and one more than this year's Indianapolis 500. But Indy has an extra mile of asphalt to handle the traffic.

"It's going to be a pack race," Wheldon told USA Today days before the race, "and you never know how that's going to turn out."

Veteran driver Paul Tracy warned that pack racing — bunches of cars battling for position — and less experienced drivers could cause accidents in the first few laps.

"To be in the middle of the field might not be the best situation early on," Tracy said. "There is the potential for a big wreck, so we hope to stay out of that."

Twelve minutes after the green flag dropped, a chain reaction started in the middle of the field and trickled back to Wheldon in 24th place.

Tracy said after the race that Wheldon's No. 77 car flew past his head on its way into the wall.

• • •

Immediately after the wreck, some drivers said things happened too quickly to avoid the pileup. Nothing could be done.

"When something goes wrong, there's zero time to react," Hinchcliffe said.

Series champion Dario Franchitti blamed Vegas for being "not a suitable track."

IndyCar teams were quiet Monday. The series canceled its year-end celebration and announced that a public memorial will be held in Indianapolis soon but released no details.

Wheldon's father, Clive, thanked fans for their support outside of his home in Wheldon's native England.

"Daniel was born to be a racer," he said, "and yesterday he left us doing what he loved."

Five-time defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said IndyCar should stick to slower street courses like St. Petersburg. In March, Johnson qualified at Vegas at 186.728 mph — 36 mph slower than the pole speed for Sunday's IndyCar race on the same track.

"I wouldn't run them on ovals," Johnson said. "There's just no need to."

Former driver Bobby Rahal — whose son, Graham, raced Sunday alongside Wheldon — said in a statement that he mourned Wheldon's loss.

Rahal, the 1986 Indy 500 winner, said he'll try to comfort Wheldon's widow and two children.

"Then," Rahal said, "we will do what Dan would have done; we will go racing."

Staff writer Matt Baker can be reached at mbaker@sptimes.com. Information from IndyCar.com, the Associated Press, ABC, ESPN and the Indianapolis Star were used in this report.

Kevin and Karen Burris embrace Monday at the gate to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway where tributes are being left by race fans in memory of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon. He was killed in a fiery crash Sunday in Las Vegas.

Getty Images

Kevin and Karen Burris embrace Monday at the gate to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway where tributes are being left by race fans in memory of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon. He was killed in a fiery crash Sunday in Las Vegas.

Las Vegas Motor Speedway drew criticism before IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon's death 10/17/11 [Last modified: Monday, October 17, 2011 11:47pm]
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