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Indy death puts focus on track

NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson says ovals lead to dangerous speeds.

- jutter@charlotteobserver.com, dperlmutt@charlotteobserver.com
Monday, Oct. 17, 2011

The death Sunday of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon in a violent, 15-car wreck in Las Vegas left NASCAR star Jimmie Johnson calling Monday for an end to high-banked oval-track IndyCar racing.

Johnson said Monday it's too dangerous to run the open-wheeled cars on tracks that allow them to travel over 225 mph, raising the chance of going airborne.

"I wouldn't run them on ovals," Johnson said during a break in testing at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "There's just no need to. Those cars are fantastic for street circuits, for road courses. On ovals at those speeds - there's very little crumple zone around the driver, it's an open cockpit, and then you add open wheels - it's just creating situations to get the car off the ground at a high rate of speed."

Johnson, who has won the past five NASCAR Sprint Cup championships, was involved in a vicious head-on accident of his own Saturday night in the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte. He walked away unhurt and believes cars in NASCAR to be much safer.

They are also slower. The fastest lap in qualifying during the Sprint Cup series' visit to the track earlier this season was 188.884 mph.

"I feel like NASCAR has worked hard to keep speeds down. We have devices on the vehicles to keep them on the ground. We don't have those types of crashes," Johnson said. "Their average was 225 (mph)? I've never been 225 mph in my life - and that's their average around an oval. They are brave men and women that drive those things."

As word of Johnson's comments filtered out Monday, he felt compelled to take to his Twitter account. "I hate some of you don't understand my opinion of Indy Cars not running on ovals. ... I don't want to see my friends hurt or another tragedy," his Twitter post read. "It's only because I care. ... I'm a huge fan of open wheel racing and all things racing."

The race Sunday that killed Wheldon, 33, was the first for IndyCar at Las Vegas since the 1.5-mile track reconfigured to add banking in 2006. The series had run there before the reconfiguration, when the track was a flat oval. The Las Vegas track is owned by Bruton Smith's Speedway Motorsports Inc., which also owns Charlotte Motor Speedway. SMI president Marcus Smith was unavailable for comment on Monday, a spokesman said. IndyCar Series officials also were unavailable on Monday to comment, a series spokesperson said. Late Sunday evening, IndyCar canceled its planned end-of-the-season celebration for Monday night in Las Vegas.

Funeral arrangements remain incomplete.

Two other IndyCar drivers injured Sunday, Pippa Mann and JR Hildebrand, were released Monday from University Medical Center. IndyCar spokeswoman Amy Konrath said Mann had surgery for a burn to her right pinkie finger and will require a second surgery in two to three weeks, and Hildebrand has a severely bruised sternum.

Wheldon's death was the first in the IndyCar series since rookie Paul Dana was killed in a practice on the morning of a race in Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2006. At least 474 people have died in U.S. racing from 1990 through 2010, according to a Charlotte Observer study. That's an average of more than 22 deaths per year.

Tributes to Wheldon, a 16-time winner on the IndyCar circuit and the 2005 series champion, sprang up around the world, from Las Vegas to Indianapolis to Wheldon's hometown, Emberton, England.

The Wheldon tragedy has other Carolinas connections. In 2005, Wheldon drove for a Rolex Sports Car Series team owned by Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates of Charlotte, winning the 24 Hours of Daytona race. Wheldon also drove for three years for Concord-based Chip Ganassi Racing. Sabates awoke early Monday and immediately watched the pileup slow motion, freezing frames as he went. When the chain reaction began - and parts of cars flew - he focused on Wheldon's No. 77 car.

"There was nothing he could do," Sabates said. "At that point, he was just along for the ride. I've seen a lot of accidents, and that was the most violent thing I've ever seen in my life - in any form. It's a real tragedy. Dan was a very popular young man. He had a smile on his face all the time. He was just a nice kid."

Sabates said he spoke to several drivers Monday.

"They said the same thing: What happened to Dan could happen to any of them. When a driver dies, it hits close to home. But, on the other hand, that's the profession they've chosen," he said. "I've always said I don't care how much a driver gets paid. The more, the better. They're putting their lives on the line."

Wheldon leaves behind a wife, Susie Behm, his longtime publicist and assistant whom he married in 2008. They have two sons, ages 2 1/2 and 7 months.

Susie's father, Sven Behm , who still lives in Winston-Salem, told FOX8 in Greensboro that Wheldon had called him before Sunday's race to sing him "Happy Birthday." Behm told his son-in-law that a win Sunday would be the best birthday present possible.

Behm said he told Wheldon recently that racing was a "dangerous business." Wheldon, however, assured him "the cars are so safe today that we don't have to be afraid."

"I never thought I would be here today talking about this death," Behm, who has traveled to Las Vegas to be with his daughter, said. "I remember he came here, and he wanted to ask for the hand of my daughter, and I thought that was just so nice. He wasn't just a great driver; he was a great human being." The Associated Press contributed.

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