- Associated Press - Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sometimes you find out more about someone in death than you ever knew about them in life.

Most everyone in racing knew Dan Wheldon was a good driver and a really good guy. Loved his family dearly, just as they loved him back.

What most probably didn’t know was that he was a neat freak who carefully lined up his many shoes in the closet. Or that he was determined never to give a bad interview. Or that he would say “It’s mega, man!” when he did something like win the Indianapolis 500 _ which he did twice.

There were a lot of stories told about Wheldon this weekend in Florida at his funeral and later at a memorial service in Indianapolis, giving us insight we never would have had were it not for the horrible accident that ended his life.

Sometimes it takes a death to change things.

That was evident Sunday when NASCAR points leader Carl Edwards raised his hand in a drivers meeting at Talladega to clarify what would happen if there were a wreck on the final lap. Would drivers be expected to keep their foot on the pedal and sprint through the wreckage or should they back off, assured of keeping their place in the field?

The answer was they should back off. But it was a question that might never have come up had NASCAR not been at its fastest track a week to the day of Wheldon’s death.

There will be many more questions Monday in Indianapolis, when IndyCar drivers meet to talk about Wheldon’s death and the future of the race series. Almost surely, most will be about safety and what lessons can be learned from the fiery crash that took his life on a warm fall afternoon in Las Vegas.

They will be the same kind of questions asked a decade ago when another beloved driver, Dale Earnhardt, was killed at Daytona Beach. The same questions raised in 1994 when the great Brazilian champion, Ayrton Senna, was killed in Formula One in Italy.

Earnhardt and Senna were the stars of their racing leagues, and their deaths were so jolting that safety issues quickly became a focus. Changes were made to protect drivers, and there hasn’t been a death in NASCAR or Formula One since.

Wheldon was a pretty big name himself, and his death on national television was just as shocking, even though the heyday of IndyCar racing was several decades ago. Almost immediately there was a call for safety changes, including one from NASCAR five-time champion Jimmie Johnson to stop running the open-air cars on high-banked ovals such as the one in Las Vegas.

Nothing, of course, will eliminate the danger in IndyCar racing. There always will be the potential for disaster when running 220 mph with the accelerator glued to the floor lap after lap.

Racing is a dangerous, dangerous sport. Always has been, which is a major part of its appeal.

People come to watch racers risk their lives and flirt with danger. They slap high fives for a good wreck, strain to see replays of cars slamming into walls.

That’s not going to change, because it’s the inherent nature of the beast. Without crashes, racing would just be cars going around an oval in a chess match. Interesting, perhaps, but not thrilling enough to get people to watch.

The television ratings from Las Vegas a week ago reflected that. IndyCar chief Randy Bernard had vowed to get at least a .8 rating on ABC for the final race of the year _ compared to .3 a year earlier _ and said he would resign if he didn’t get it.

Bernard ended up doubling the number he wanted, though it took a death to do it. The rating actually peaked at 3.8 in the half hour in which Wheldon’s death was announced, as people tuned in to see replays of the fiery crash and watch the remaining drivers take parade laps in tribute to him.

A lot of things went wrong in a split second in Las Vegas, and it didn’t take much longer for the finger pointing to begin. Among the charges were that the track was too banked for an IndyCar race, there were too many cars bunched together, and too many drivers were too inexperienced for the big stage.

Not to mention the questionable wisdom of offering a $5 million prize to Wheldon if he won the race after starting at the back.

All those factors will be dissected in upcoming months, as well they should be. Change can’t come about until the mistakes of the past are examined and measures are taken to make sure they’re not repeated.

Change is already underway with a new car for next year that reportedly will include a reinforced cockpit and partly enclosed wheels. Wheldon was the main development driver for the car and had extensively tested its new features, only to die in his last race in the old car.

The new car with Wheldon’s name was onstage in Indianapolis, where fellow drivers gathered Sunday in a celebration of Wheldon’s life. Friend and fellow driver Dario Franchitti said Wheldon would have been happy with the big turnout, so much so that he would have said ” `I told you ‘bro, I’m big in Indy.’”

At Talladega, meanwhile, NASCAR drivers raced on the circuit’s fastest and biggest track with stickers on their helmets and cars in remembrance of Wheldon. Brad Keselowski, who drives for top IndyCar owner Roger Penske, went even further, with “In memory of Dan” written across his back bumper.

Great tributes, all, to a driver who will be terribly missed.

The greatest tribute of all, though, would be finding a way to prevent it from happening again.


Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or at https://twitter.com/timdahlberg

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