Nightly News   |  October 17, 2011

Tragedy hits IndyCar race track

Veteran driver Dan Wheldon died from injuries suffered Sunday when his car was entangled in a horrific 15-car wreck early in the IndyCar series' season-ending race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He was 33. NBC’s George Lewis reports.

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

WILLIAMS: Good evening.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: The photo of him along with his wife and two small children is heartbreaking, the picture of the perfect-seeming family, except tonight dad is gone from the picture because dad raced cars for a living and there was a tragedy in Las Vegas yesterday. If you're not a race fan, it might all look the same, cars going way too fast, making only left turns and taking way too big a risk for a trophy and some prize money. If you're a fan, then you get it. If you're among racing's interconnected families, you understand it as well. At any level, however, the death of champion driver Dan Wheldon is just sad, and before it's over it may have ramifications for an entire sport. We want to begin tonight with NBC 's George Lewis , who's in Las Vegas . And, George , just to set the scene here, while NASCAR uses sedans that look roughly like the cars we all drive, these Indy cars are spindly hybrids with exposed wheels and they go very fast.

GEORGE LEWIS reporting: Yeah, and they're about one-third the weight of a NASCAR automobile, Brian . When you've got a pack of them racing at more than 200 miles an hour, separated by just feet, there's always the potential for disaster. But some race veterans say this was one of the worst pileups they've ever seen.

Sports Announcer: Oh, here we go! Trouble, contact and huge crash!

Offscreen Voice: ...go low, go low, go low!

LEWIS: It happened on the 12th lap of a 300-mile race when the tires of two cars touched, sending them out of control. What followed was a chain reaction of collisions, 15 cars in all.

Sports Announcer: It looks like Dan Wheldon may be involved in it.

LEWIS: Wheldon 's car launched into the air, hitting the wall in a fiery crash along with several other race cars .

Mr. RANDY BERNARD (IndyCar CEO): IndyCar is very sad to announce that Dan Wheldon has passed away from unsurvivable injury.

LEWIS: A two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 , Wheldon , 33 years old, leaves behind a wife and two small sons. His family, friends and colleagues in racing were stunned by the news of his death.

Mr. CLIVE WHELDON (Dan Wheldon's Father): Daniel was born to be a racer and yesterday left us doing what he loved to do. He was a true champion and a gentleman on and off the track.

Ms. DANICA PATRICK (Race Driver): He was a friend of all of us and he'll be missed. And I just feel for his family.

Mr. DARIO FRANCHITTI (Race Driver): One minute you're joking around at driver intros and the next, you know, Dan 's gone.

LEWIS: A few days before the race, Wheldon spoke to the cable network Versus .

Mr. DAN WHELDON: We're certainly up to the challenge. And, you know, these race tracks are tracks that I normally go very, very well at.

LEWIS: In an appearance with David Letterman in June, Wheldon talked about safety improvements to future Indy cars .

Mr. DAVID LETTERMAN: You don't want the wheels climbing up over each other because that's when unpleasant things happen.

Mr. WHELDON: Exactly. And I don't want any part of that.

LEWIS: But there are questions tonight about whether Indy cars belong at tracks like Las Vegas , a mile-and-a-half banked oval designed for the NASCAR circuit. By contrast the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a two-and-a-half-mile course, kind of a rectangle with rounded corners and long, flat straightaways. Five-time defending NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson called for an end to IndyCar racing on oval tracks.

Mr. JIMMIE JOHNSON: Those cars are going so fast and get airborne frequently on ovals that I wouldn't run them on ovals. There's just no need to.

Mr. LARS ANDERSON (Sports Illustrated Senior Writer): When there is a wreck that transpires right in front of you, you don't have time to react, to brake or even steer away from the wreck. And that's precisely what happened to Dan Wheldon .

LEWIS: And he paid for it with his life. Now, tonight IndyCar USA , the organization that had this race here, had no comment to the critics who say that machines built for the Indianapolis 500 have no business racing on tracks like this one. Brian :

WILLIAMS: All right, George Lewis tonight. Obviously, our thoughts are with members of his family.