IndyCar halted the race and the remaining drivers did a five-lap tribute to Wheldon, many with tears streaming down their faces.
Patrick was among them, leaving IndyCar not in triumph, but devastation after watching a friend die in a crash that unfolded right in front of her.
Returning five months later, even in a different kind of car, has been a heart-wrenching experience. Patrick said she made it through Friday’s practice session without thinking too much about Wheldon, but it was hard to completely shake his memory, even at 175 mph.
“Obviously, the last time we were here, it was a big weekend, a sad weekend and thoughts are still with Susie (Dan’s wife) and the kids,” Patrick said. “There won’t be a time when I come to Las Vegas and won’t think about Dan and think about the family.”
The wreck raised questions about whether IndyCar should race at the high-banked oval at LVMS, where speeds reached 225 mph in practice before last fall’s race. IndyCar opted not to return to Las Vegas and the wreck led to the addition of numerous safety measures at tracks and the redesigned car that will debut this season.
NASCAR doesn’t have some the same concerns, even after the banking was increased from 12 to 20 degrees in 2007.
The cars don’t run nearly as fast at LVMS _ Johnson hit 188 mph in Friday’s practice session _ making them a better fit for the 1.5-mile tri-oval. Sprint Cup and Nationwide cars fully encase the drivers and are less likely to go airborne than IndyCars, though that series has added pods around the wheels on the new car to prevent the wheel-to-wheel contact that sometimes launches the cars into the air.
Even with all those safety measures, racing at a track where someone recently died does make them stop and think about the dangers a little more.
“I wouldn’t say our cars are perfectly safe, but certainly they do give you a false sense (of security) sometimes,” said Kyle Busch, who grew up in Las Vegas. “But anything can happen. Whether you’re walking across the street, playing out in the sand dunes or racing around a race track, there’s something that can happen around every turn.”
The drivers understand the risks involved in their sport, and realize the next time they climb into the car could be their last. The key is putting it to the back of their minds so it doesn’t affect their aggressiveness on the track.
Staying away from those thoughts is harder now because of what happened to Wheldon, a friend to many NASCAR drivers.
“It was devastating; I thought about it driving through the tunnel last night coming here,” Greg Biffle said. “We all think about it because what we do is a dangerous sport. That’s an underlying factor that we know can happen with what we do, so you try to be the best prepared you can be when you go into all these races and anytime you get in the car.”
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