TERRE HAUTE —
Lori Wood, the Tribune-Star’s Indianapolis 500 correspondent since 2000, planned to visit a friend in California and take in the IndyCar Las Vegas 300 as a ticket-buying fan last weekend.
She never imagined that she would be sobbing in her seat at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway by Sunday afternoon.
Wood said she first met Dan Wheldon — the 2011 Indianapolis 500 champion who died from head injuries suffered in that fiery 15-car pileup on the 11th lap Sunday — in 2004. She estimated that she had talked to Wheldon about a dozen times over the years.
“It didn’t matter who you were, he would take the time to talk,” Wood reflected after returning home to Pendleton this week. “And he would be genuinely interested in what you were saying.”
Having attended her first Indy 500 as a youngster in 1972, Wood said she likes all the IndyCar drivers she’s met. But she admitted she was particularly glad to see the likeable Wheldon win his second “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” this year, considering he entered May without a regular ride.
“I don’t think in all my years of being there that I’ve seen a driver happier to have won that race,” she mentioned.
Wood said she and her friend arrived at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway at 10 a.m. PDT Sunday. Once the race got under way in the afternoon, she looked forward to seeing plenty of competitive battles on the oval track.
“We were seated about 100 yards behind the start/finish line,” she pointed out. “The only part of the track we couldn’t see was a small section of Turn 2… I just wanted to see good racing and they were going three-wide a lot during the first few laps.”
Then came the 11th-lap devastation that started as the back of the pack entered the first turn.
“It was one of those chain-reaction things,” Wood said. “A couple of cars got a little squirrely and it just steamrolled from there… I started seeing the flames and the smoke. You could tell this one was extra bad. You could see pieces of cars flying around.”
She added that she heard “a real loud gasp” from spectators soon after the vehicles began to crash, spin and flip.
At the time, Wood and her friend had no idea which drivers were involved or if anyone was seriously injured. After all, she had witnessed several violent wrecks that resulted in drivers brushing themselves off and walking away from their mangled machinery.
Wood said rescue personnel arrived on the scene immediately as officials red-flagged the race and smoke lingered over a large area of the track. While waiting for more information, she listened to Mike King and his broadcasting crew on the IMS Radio Network.
“It took them a while to sort out who was involved,” she noted.
Later, Wood noticed on the speedway screen that a damaged car was being covered with tarp, but she still couldn’t make out the number. About 20 minutes after the crash, she saw a helicopter (presumably carrying a driver) leaving the track area.
Trying to maintain hope that nobody was seriously injured, Wood and her friend sat through a lengthy delay as crews worked to repair damage to the track. About 1 1/2 hours after the accident, she noticed on the screen that drivers were shown walking into a meeting somewhere in the infield.
Soon after that, Wood heard on the radio that owners were conducting their own separate meeting. But there were still no medical updates on drivers.
“You’re sitting there thinking, ‘This is bad.’ But you hope it’s not that bad,” Wood said.
Finally came the words she didn’t want to hear from IndyCar chief executive officer Randy Bernard. On the big screen, he told spectators: “IndyCar is very sad to announce that Dan Wheldon has passed away from unsurvivable injuries.”
“It was silent,” Wood said of the crowd reaction to Bernard’s announcement. “By that time, a lot of the fans had left. But the ones who remained were stunned. After a while, you could hear people sobbing and crying… I was too.”
As expected, the rest of the race was canceled with no winner declared. As a tribute to Wheldon, all of the drivers with cars still capable of running did five laps around the track while Wheldon’s No. 77 was shown alone at the top of the pylon.
Wood said another touching moment occurred when the speedway played “Amazing Grace” over the public-address system.
“This was huge for the sport,” she assessed after thinking about what transpired. “Here was this guy who was at the top of his profession [in the mid-2000s], then he found himself without a ride. But he made the most of it [by winning the 2011 Indy 500]. That’s what made him someone the fans could relate to.”
Wood isn’t sure what changes IndyCar will make to ensure driver safety in 2012, but she’s sure it will do something.
“Obviously, there were some issues,” she said. “I don’t know enough to make those decisions. But I do know they won’t let it go. They’ll consult with the drivers and car owners and they’ll make a decision.”
Wood, who had a long plane ride home Monday, insists she will continue to follow open-wheel racing in the future.
“It’s not going to be the same without Dan,” she emphasized. “But the sport will go on. Obviously, he’s not the first racing fatality. Sadly, he probably won’t be the last.”
David Hughes can be reached after 4 p.m. by phone at 1-800-783-8742, Option 4, or (812) 231-4224; by e-mail at email@example.com; or by fax at (812) 231-4321.