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Indy Champ Wheldon Dies In Vegas Speedway Crash


The world of IndyCar racing has lost one of its stars. Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon was killed yesterday during an IndyCar race in Las Vegas. Wheldon was trailing a pack of cars when he was unable to avoid a massive pile-up.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, here we go. (Unintelligible) a huge crash. Up at turn number two. Oh, multiple cars involved.

MONTAGNE: Many drivers said it was one of the worst crashes they'd ever seen. WDET's Quinn Klinefelter joins us now with more about Dan Wheldon.

Good morning.


MONTAGNE: Now, describe what happened in this race.

KLINEFELTER: Wheldon was starting from the back of the field. He was trying to get through the pack of cars in front of him. It was designed in this race for people to be very close together. They wanted to have some exciting passing back and forth. Because of that, the cars were very close to one another.

And it's not a huge track. It's not like the size of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which would be two and a half miles around. Yet they were going about the same speeds. They were approaching 220-plus miles per hour. Going that fast, no normal human really has the reaction time to avoid anything if it happens in front of you.

And sadly enough, that was what happened. A couple of cars got into each other. There were spinouts. There were wrecks. Cars were flying. And Wheldon hit the ensuing chaos. His car flew up into the air. It flew above the actual wall itself into the fencing that is above the wall and unfortunately suffered injuries that were life-taking.

MONTAGNE: Were there earlier concerns that this kind of accident could happen?

KLINEFELTER: There were. Drivers brought that up before the race, actually. On these smaller tracks you typically wouldn't have this type of speed, number one. And number two, you wouldn't have this massive amount of cars on it.

However, the IndyCar series itself has struggled a bit in popularity. And they have been trying to do things that would try to revive the sport. And one of them was they were pointing to this last race. This was the very last race of the season. They wanted to make it a real spectacle. And because of that, they wanted to have the exciting passing back and forth and cars darting and dodging.

And they were worried, the drivers were, that if anything did happen, they'd be so closely packed together that they would be unable to avoid any kind of a catastrophe.

MONTAGNE: Now, you spoke with Dan Wheldon any number of times, and you knew him a bit. What was he like?

KLINEFELTER: Very personable, a charmer. Always a bright smile. Always somebody who was thrilled with the sport of auto racing itself. He was a racer in the truest sense, because that was what really brought him joy, other than his family. He would always have a happy word for people.

You know, I mean sometimes they'll make a saint out of somebody in this kind of a situation. But you don't have to go too far with Wheldon.

The strange thing about it was he was twice the winner of the Indianapolis 500, the marquee event in this series, and yet he hadn't been able to get with a full-time team for this season. He only had done a few of the races of the dozen and a half or so that they did during the entire year. And so even in between he was racing go-carts and things where he wasn't making any money but was just doing it for the love of the sport.

It's something where everyone in the pit lane when this happened was crying. They were praying during the couple of hours that the race itself was stopped before it was announced that Wheldon had passed. And everyone is truly sad. It's a loss of a great driver and somebody who, by all accounts, was a pretty darn good human being.

MONTAGNE: Quinn, thanks very much for joining us.

KLINEFELTER: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: WDET's Quinn Klinefelter. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Quinn Klinefelter