He died on Valentine's Day in a simple crash, a crash exactly like the one that would claim seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt's life 21 years later. I was there for Earnhardt's death, too. Both of those accidents at first glance might seem innocuous, but they were both devastating, head-on collisions into the outside wall at Daytona International Speedway.
The race, a 125-mile qualifying race for the 500, ran to its finish. The victory was celebrated. And the work went on. Tools clinked on metal, but no one was talking. .
It was nothing like what I saw and heard Sunday, after Dan Wheldon, 33, became the first IndyCar driver to die in a racing accident since 2006.
In 1980, I cried for Knotts and for all those men who seemed to me to be unable to mourn. Bobby Allison, a long-time NASCAR legend even then, put an arm around my shoulders and explained what I was seeing.
"This is how you pay respect to someone who races," Allison, now 73, told me that day. "In 1969 my best friend Don MacTavish was killed here right before my eyes. He hit the wall and lost the entire front end of his car. The car spun around and another driver coming out of the turn ran right into him as he sat there, strapped in his seat.
"It was brutal," said Allison, who had seen it all as he drove by. "But I kept driving. I drove the entire race with tears in my eyes. But I drove, because to do anything else would have been giving in to death and no one on the track or in this garage ever does that."
I thought of Allison Sunday and what he said, as I watched on television what happened at Las Vegas Speedway.
Drivers sobbed openly. The race was not restarted — whether it could have been or not, given the damage to the track, walls and fencing. I'd never seen that in more than 30 years of covering motorsports.
It's always been like the theater — the show must go on.
But the Las Vegas Indy 300 didn't on Sunday. Three-time champion Dario Franchitti, when asked if the sport was worth the carnage, didn't hesitate, "Of course it's not," he said.
At the Ravens' game, Baltimore Grand Prix president Jay Davidson got a text alerting him to something "terrible" happening in Las Vegas. When he got home and turned on the television, he was as shocked and horrified as everyone else.
"It was just awful," Davidson said. "It certainly opens your eyes to the perspective of safety versus competitiveness. You see that and you understand why the safety element is so critical."
Of course, there is a big difference between street races and oval races. You're not going to see 225 mph on a street course like Baltimore. The fields are smaller, the distance between cars and walls narrower. And the roads are flat, not banked. Cars don't usually go flying.
Davidson said he doesn't think circumstances of Wheldon's death will have a major impact on the design of the track here.
"We saw the Tony Kanaan incident [Kanaan lost his breaks and drove over the edge of Helio Castroneves' car to slow him down on his way to the tire barrier at the end of Pratt St. during the morning practice before Baltimore GP]," Davidson said. "We know there is an element of danger to it, but generally speeds are lower and incidents are not the kind we saw there."
The Las Vegas crash was the biggest, most brutal crash I've ever seen. And the emotion?
When Allison raced, drivers were used to mayhem and death. It happened. If not all the time, enough of the time to to seal their emotions against the worst possible outcome.