Racing world in mourning for driver Dan Wheldon

STORY HIGHLIGHTS

  • NEW: Some drivers had expressed concern about the track configuration
  • Dan Wheldon apparently was unable to stop, says sports writer
  • His father-in-law remembers Wheldon as a "great human being"
  • An impromptu memorial grows outside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Las Vegas (CNN) — The racing world was in mourning Monday after two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon, an Englishman with a ready smile and engaging manner, was killed Sunday in a multicar crash at the Las Vegas Indy 300.

"You know, this is a sport predicated on speed and there are a lot of safety channels," Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim said Monday. But he added, "The fact of the matter is, you're dealing with very, very fast automobiles. They're not heavy cars. … There is, unfortunately, an assumption of risk when you get into one of those race cars."

Following Wheldon's death in the 15-car fiery crash, the remainder of the race — the marquee event of the IZOD IndyCar World Championships — was canceled. The remaining drivers, many of them visibly emotional after a meeting with IndyCar officials, did a five-lap salute in Wheldon's honor as "Amazing Grace" played.

Wheldon, 33, died from "unsurvivable injuries," IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard said Sunday.

Video of the crash showed cars spinning out of control and bursting into flames, spewing smoke and debris.

"I've never seen a crash like this," said Carlos Diaz, an anchor on CNN sister station HLN who said he's been around racing his entire life. He said one witness told him "it was like a bomb went off."

Images from the fatal crash

Factors including the speed of the cars, the number of vehicles and the configuration of the track likely contributed to the crash, former Indy driver Lyn St. James told CNN on Monday.

"All of those elements coming together just was like the perfect storm," she said. "It was unfortunate, it was tragic, it was something we all wish would never have happened."

The track is "not a large track," Wertheim said, and is not often used for IndyCar racing. It is significantly smaller than the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Asked whether she believes too many cars were on the track, St. James said, "I don't necessarily believe that," but she noted the Indianapolis track is a mile longer — 2.5 miles in all.

"It's more the configuration, that you've got a really, really wide racetrack with 20 degrees of banking in the turns, 9 degrees of banking on the straightaway, so you have this momentum and this ability for all the cars to be able to go flat out, so that really takes the car out of the driver's hands."

Besides being smaller, the Las Vegas track is also wide enough to allow several cars to be next to each other, Diaz said. "You have a smaller area where cars get compact."

Several drivers had expressed concern about the track before the race, saying such a wreck could potentially occur, he said.

"This is not a suitable track, and we've seen it today," driver Dario Franchitti told ABC News, adding the track offered "nowhere to get away from anybody."

Questions about the track — whether it was big enough to accommodate 34 cars and whether it is too fast for that number of cars — likely will be raised in the aftermath of the crash, three-time Formula One champion Jackie Stewart told CNN.

Stewart said he doesn't believe he has ever seen such a crash. "It was a horrendous accident and just one of the most painful things I've seen for a very, very long time."

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Championship contender Will Power, Rookie of the Year candidate J.R. Hildebrand and driver Pippa Mann were taken to area hospitals for treatment. Power was treated and released, said IndyCar spokeswoman Amy Konrath on Sunday, while Mann and Hildebrand were awake and alert but stayed overnight for observation.

Wheldon was in line for a $5 million payout if he had won Sunday's race.

He was in the back of the 34-car field, "going for the prize," Wertheim said, and had made progress early.

"It looks to me as though he just couldn't stop," he said. "Look how close the cars are bunched together — 220 miles an hour, inches separating them."

In North Carolina, Wheldon's father-in-law, Sven Bhem, said he had just spoken to him before the race. Wheldon sang him "Happy Birthday," he said, and he told Wheldon that his victory would be the best birthday present possible.

"He said, 'My car is kind of slow, but they're working on it. We'll do our best,'" Bhem told CNN affiliate WGHP.

He recalled when Wheldon came to him wanting to ask for his daughter's hand in marriage. "I thought that was just so nice," he said. "… I never thought I was going to be here today talking about his death."

Wheldon "wasn't just a great driver, but he was a great human being," Bhem said. "He was always positive, always had something good to say about everybody."

Wheldon was known as "a great family man"

He said Wheldon and his daughter had been married four years and have two sons, ages 2 1/2 and 7 months.

Bhem said he had warned Wheldon he was in a "dangerous business," but Wheldon assured him "the cars are so safe today that we don't have to be afraid." Still, he said, "you always worry with that kind of speed."

Bhem said he was planning to fly to Las Vegas to be with his daughter Sunday night and hoped to console her "even though there are no words to say."

After his second Indy 500 victory in May, Weldon told CNN, "it's incredibly intense around this racetrack. We're doing speeds in excess of 220 miles an hour, and with this race, you just never know what can happen."

Wheldon, who was born in Emberton, England, lived in St. Petersburg, Florida. His father was a go-kart racer and his mother was the timer at a local track. As a driver, Wheldon teamed up with the Alzheimer's Association to promote awareness of Alzheimer's disease; he was wearing the association's logo when he won the Indy 500 in May. His mother was diagnosed with the disease in 2009.

St. James remembered Wheldon as a "brash kid from England" when he first began.

"We watched him mature into being this absolute, consummate professional," she said. "… He touched so many people."

She said she believes Wheldon's death will "kind of raise the bar" in terms of safety for drivers. While a number of safety measures are in place, and the sport will always be high-risk, "we don't want this kind of thing to happen," she said.

In addition, she said the death could be a learning experience for younger drivers. Drivers who cannot accept that such a fate could be theirs should pursue another sport, she said.

"He was a really special guy," she said of Wheldon. Her greatest memory is watching him drink the milk, a traditional celebration following his Indy 500 win, she said.

"His legacy is how many people he touched, that will remember him forever," St. James said.

Blog: Wheldon's death should bring changes in racetracks

"I lost one of my best friends, one of my greatest teammates," driver Tony Kanaan told reporters on Sunday.

"I know this is a dangerous sport," he said. "I know we're exposed to that every day, in normal life as well. But, you know, you don't think about it. Today, we have to think about it."

Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corp. President and CEO Jeff Belskus released a statement Sunday calling Wheldon a "great champion" and "wonderful ambassador."

"Most importantly, he was a fantastic husband, father and man — a good friend to so many in this sport," the statement said. "His memory will live forever at the Speedway, both through the magnitude of his accomplishments on the track and his magnetism off the track."

Outside the Indianapolis speedway Sunday night, an impromptu memorial grew as emotional racing fans left flowers in Wheldon's honor.

"It just goes to show you, you know — people come to this place because they love this sport and they love this race and they love this series, and Dan Wheldon exemplified everything about this series and about why people continued to come to this place," Robert Fetters told CNN affiliate WRTV-TV in Indianapolis. He said Wheldon was "friendly, he was personable. You could approach the man."

"He was a champion," fan Alex Miser said. "I'll miss him. I think the entire community will."

Many of those in the racing world and beyond took to Twitter to express their sorrow at Wheldon's death.

"There are no words for today," driver Danica Patrick, the first woman to win an IndyCar race in 2008, tweeted. "Myself and so many others are devastated. I pray for suzi (Wheldon's wife) and the kids that god will give them strength."

"My thoughts and prayers go out to the Wheldon family … my heart hurts for all of the IRL community," tweeted Jimmie Johnson, a five-time NASCAR champion who survived a crash of his own in Charlotte, North Carolina, over the weekend.

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Racing world in mourning for driver Dan Wheldon

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