These days? There might have been two or three drivers on the Las Vegas track who have witnessed a death during an open wheel race.

But despite the lack of experience with tragedy, the veteran drivers in the field have no trouble recognizing a recipe for disaster. Even before the race began drivers voiced concern about the 220-plus-miles-per-hour speeds their cars were capable of. And there was worry about overcrowding on the 1.5 mile oval with a field of 34 racecars. Not even the 2.5 mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway fields 34 cars.

Adding to the stress and pressure was the GoDaddy Indy Car Challenge, a $5 million bonus offered to Wheldon and a fan if the two-time Indianapolis 500 champion could drive from last place to victory in the race.

Wheldon blogged for USA Today before the race that he hoped to make up ground quickly to catch points leader Dario Franchitti and Will Power, winner of the Baltimore race, who were starting mid-field. Wheldon had made it to 24th when the accident happened and his car took flight.

The British driver died from what IndyCar chief executive Randy Bernard called "unsurvivable injuries".

It's what they all die from.

Fortunately, since Earnhardt's death in the 2001 Daytona 500, NASCAR and IndyCar have worked hard to come up with more protective devices and equipment – everything from Safer Barriers, a soft-wall construction, designed to soften the impact of collisions with concrete walls, to Hans Devices, that keep drivers' heads stable during high impact crashes.

IndyCar has worked on designs that assure the cars will fly apart, disbursing the killer energy of major impacts that the body would otherwise have to endure.

But nothing being used — yet — could help Wheldon Sunday, as 15 cars collided. Carrying full loads of fuel, many burst into flames and at least two cars took flight, one of them Wheldon's. All of them crashed either into each other or into the track walls or catch fence.

Perhaps listening about the danger of excessive speed and crowded race tracks would have helped.

As for my thoughts about Bobby Allison, I wonder what he thought of the decision to take five laps in honor of Wheldon instead of finishing the race.

Personally, I thought it was a sign of these times — when racing has become safer than it has ever been. A time when tragedy is unexpected and perhaps that much more emotionally brutal because of it.

sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

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  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Ricky Knotts as a teenager when he died. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.