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Death gives pause, but racing will go on

By Jenna Fryer
Associated Press / October 22, 2011

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TALLADEGA, Ala. - Tony Stewart competes in NASCAR. His heart, though, belongs to open-wheel racing, and he spent the first 25 years of his life trying to get to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

When he did, in 1996, he and teammate Scott Brayton qualified first and second. Six days later, Brayton was killed during a practice run.

Stewart, a rookie that year, continued on every day at Indianapolis, started his first 500 nine days later and led 44 laps until his engine blew - finally bringing an end to what was supposed to be a celebration of him fulfilling his lifelong dream.

But that’s what racers do. They race, and they’ll race this weekend at Talladega Superspeedway, where NASCAR becomes the first major series to run since Dan Wheldon died Sunday in the IndyCar season finale.

“It doesn’t affect us, getting back in the car,’’ Stewart said yesterday. “We all know that can happen every week. It’s been a part of racing forever.

Only some in NASCAR knew Wheldon, a popular two-time Indianapolis 500 winner. But his death touched everyone, and, 10 years after NASCAR’s last fatality, brought the element of danger back to the spotlight.

NASCAR finds itself this weekend on its biggest and fastest track, where speeds can hit 200 miles per hour and Carl Edwards’s car went sailing into the fence in a 2009 last-lap accident. Debris from that accident flew into the grandstands, and seven fans were injured.

“That scared me,’’ Edwards said of the fan injuries. “Fortunately, everybody was OK and everything worked out and all the safety stuff in place worked and went our way. But that was a little wake-up call to me that this stuff is serious, and you have to be careful.’’

Greg Biffle posted the fastest lap of the two practice sessions yesterday at 198.94 miles per hour.

Most drivers refuse to even think about the risk factor when they get into the car. But five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson, who walked away from a nasty hit in last Saturday night’s race at Charlotte, admitted Wheldon’s death has made drivers confront the dangers.

Johnson was one of 10 drivers who tested at Charlotte on Monday, the day after Wheldon’s accident.

“Getting in the car . . . deep in the back of my mind, just thinking about things and there’s my marks in the wall in Turn 2 and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I had a bad angle and I hit pretty hard,’ ’’ Johnson said. “I think we spend very little time as drivers thinking about it, right or wrong. It’s just kind of who we are.’’

NASCAR has made significant upgrades in safety since Dale Earnhardt’s 2001 fatal accident, from SAFER barriers, an updated car, the mandatory use of head-and-neck restraints and stronger seats. IndyCar also has made up considerable ground in safety, but tommorw’s race was the final event for its current car.

The new car scheduled to debut next season is considered to be a vast improvement in safety and technology standards.

Even so, former Formula One world champion Jody Scheckter wants his son, Tomas, to quit the IndyCar series.

“I’ve wanted him to give up for a while,’’ Scheckter told BBC. “Hopefully this will knock some sense into him and make him realize there is more to life.

“It really isn’t worth it. It is the most dangerous form of motor racing at the moment.’’

IndyCar was at Las Vegas for the first time since 2000, and the first time since the track was reconfigured to add progressive banking. Many have complained the combination of the banking and the current car were an unsuitable mix, but the series’ top drivers have remained largely silent on the issue since Wheldon’s accident.