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BILL DWYRE

Dan Wheldon's death hits racing community especially hard

Any death on the track is difficult to take, but the brutality of the 15-car crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway only adds to the sorrow.

October 17, 2011|Bill Dwyre
  • Cindy Herring kisses a candle at a memorial for Dan Wheldon at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway main gate on Monday. Wheldon, who won the Indy 500 twice, died Sunday after a 15-car crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Cindy Herring kisses a candle at a memorial for Dan Wheldon at the Indianapolis… (Matt Kryger / Associated…)

Auto racing was stuck in low gear Monday. The day after Dan Wheldon crashed, his sport was crumpled.

This was not ordinary, as if any death in any sport can be called ordinary. This one had the people who race and the people who watch the people who race walking around with a deer-in-the-headlight look. Shock and disbelief come in degrees, and this one was off the charts, especially in the categories of who and how.

For the younger race fan, of which there are millions, this was akin to the loss of A.J. Foyt or Mario Andretti. Wheldon had won the Indianapolis 500 twice. Daytona notwithstanding, gulping from the milk bottle in the winners' circle twice at the Brickyard still establishes a racing pedestal almost unmatchable. Even Andretti never got that second gulp.

But when you add the how, the horrific crash that left battlefield-like debris all over the track at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway and surviving drivers in tears and disbelief, you've got a sport with an open wound.

Monday, the media was doing what it is supposed to do. Asking questions: Is the Las Vegas track proper for IndyCar racing? Was the $5 million last-to-first challenge taken on by Wheldon too dangerous? Has a sport that has come light years in advancing safety measures ever since Dale Earnhardt's death in 2001 come far enough?

The questions, all necessary, tend to increase the gloom.

Tim Huddleston is president of High Point Racing in Simi Valley. His teams have dominated short-track, late-model racing at the Toyota Speedway at Irwindale since it opened in 1999. He did the same as a driver, winning three championships and a record 44 races at the track, before easing back this year and becoming more owner than driver.

Monday morning, he and his crew came to work as they always do. But the mood wasn't as it always is.

"We all kind of walked into our conference room and sat down," Huddleston said. "We talked about it, about our thoughts, about whether the [Las Vegas] track was right for Indy cars. We looked at the picture on the wall a lot."

The picture is a 30-by-40-inch poster. It shows Wheldon and his winning Indy car last May, on the yard of bricks at the finish line of the Indy 500.

"Dan signed it for us," Huddleston said.

There are fewer than seven degrees of separation in racing.

One of the young drivers on Huddleston's team is Austin Dyne, whose father, Colin, is the chief executive of the company that sponsored Wheldon's car, including the No. 98 Indy winner this year. The company, William Rast, makes denim jeans more likely to be found on the shelves of stores on Rodeo Drive than at Walmart. Colin Dyne's main partner in the business is Justin Timberlake. The William Rast name is an accumulation of initials of company founders and people involved in the company.

"I was supposed to be in Las Vegas," Huddleston said. "Austin raced at Irwindale Saturday night and he and Colin asked me one more time if I wanted to come along. I would have been in Dan Wheldon's pit box."

Huddleston declined because he had a family wedding to attend. He got the word on the crash almost immediately, by text and Twitter. He was at the wedding, on a boat, off Newport Beach.

"I felt trapped," he said.

He had sent a text message to his racing team and associates Sunday morning, encouraging them to root for Wheldon. Hours later, he sent another message, a horrifying one.

It is a defense mechanism to become philosophical in situations such as this, and so Huddleston did. One safe haven in racing seems to be the undeniable axiom that the sport has highs so high and lows so low that there are few roller coasters like it.

In early September at Irwindale, the High Point Racing Team "reached the pinnacle," Huddleston said. It finished the main late-model race in the top four places, an unimaginable sweep. The next Saturday, the entire team crashed.

"The cars all came home in a basket," Huddleston said. "I remember sitting on the back of a truck, surrounded by metal and broken parts."

First highs, then lows.

The day before Wheldon's crash, Michael Lewis, one of Huddleston's occasional Irwindale drivers, won a Formula 3 race at Monza, Italy, against the best European drivers in that division. Barely a day later, another of Huddleston's best young drivers, Austin Dyne, was sending a text message that said, "I will miss my idol and mentor."

Huddleston was interviewed en route to having lunch with Colin Dyne. He was asked what he would say. After a long pause, Huddleston came up with the best answer, maybe the only one.

"I'm just gonna hug him," he said.

As racing continued to mourn and struggle to find its equilibrium Monday, a message was sent that may have gotten lost in the never-ending barrage of emails that now fill our lives. This one, it turned out, came from a significant person and carried a realistic message that will help racing turn the ignition key again.

Bobby Rahal, former Indy 500 winner, long-time racing spokesman and president of the Road Racing Drivers Club, said, "Dan Wheldon was our teammate, our competitor and our friend. The RRDC will do what we can to help his family, and we will always honor this lovely man. Then we will do what Dan would have done. We will go racing."

Among those in the midst of Sunday's crash was Graham Rahal, Bobby's son.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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