Five months ago, Dan Wheldon died during the inaugural running of IndyCar's Las Vegas 300. The events of the day haunted NASCAR then and now. As safe as the sport now is, with more than a decade since the last fatality, Wheldon's death was a shocking, painful reminder of how dangerous motorsports will always be.
Danica Patrick, now full-time in NASCAR, was in the field for the IndyCar race, and in her return to Las Vegas spoke in solemn tones about her memories of Wheldon and that weekend.
"My thoughts are still with Susie [Wheldon's wife] and the kids," she said. "There won't be a time when I come to Las Vegas where I won't think about Dan, and won't think about the family and hope they're doing well."
Patrick acknowledged that one simply cannot carry the pain of the day onto the track. "As race car drivers, our job is to drive the race car," she said. "We need to be able to do that with our whole heart and mind. It's in the moments where you don't have a singular focus, like walking up to the media center and seeing the Neon Garage, remembering the atmosphere [during Indy weekend] and where we pitted ... where you can have time to think about multiple things, [that's when] it gets to you."
"You try to push it out of your mind," Jimmie Johnson said. "You try not to think about it ... It's easier for us as drivers to say, 'Well, that was in a different car. That was in a different style of racing.' We just go out and do our jobs. It was a very, very tough situation for motorsports and especially for the IndyCar drivers."
But Johnson touched on one of the key issues surrounding Wheldon's death. The fact that such an accident couldn't happen in the same way in NASCAR — the driver's head isn't exposed, for starters — means that NASCAR is safer, but by no means completely safe.
"The likelihood of clanging wheels, that doesn't happen in stock cars," Patrick said. "What made that accident happen doesn't happen with stock cars. You get too close to somebody and you bump somebody, you're just going to bump somebody. There's peace in that."
Peace, yes, but what about confidence? Even overconfidence?
"At times, especially when we go to plate tracks, we have to climb in and feel that we're indestructible because you know there's going to be a big wreck and the chances are that you're going to be in it," Johnson said. "The other tracks you feel like you're in a bit more control and you know you're going fast and things can go wrong, but I think we're wired to forget those things, to be honest with you."
Johnson got a firsthand look at exactly how vulnerable a driver can be with his wreck at Daytona (one which, incidentally, also involved Patrick).
"There's moments on track that still get my attention," he said. "Sliding down the middle of the race track at Daytona and knowing I was going to get plowed in the door, there was a lot of fear running through my veins at that point."
Johnson pointed out that there are still some small safety concerns with the car as it now stands: "The area above the driver's head. That's something from an intrusion standpoint and we see it more at the plate tracks where cars go tumbling ... you know it's a big, open area that is really just sheet metal up there. A bumper or something could come through there and make contact with the driver's head."
NASCAR has been fortunate to remain safe for the past decade. But safety innovations that are proactive are far better for the sport than ones that arrive after a tragedy. It's a testament to NASCAR that the drivers feel as safe as they do. Hopefully that'll be the case for years to come.