Sunday, October 16th, reinging Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon died from injuries sustained on lap 12 of the Izod IndyCar series season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Weldon was 33 years old, and left behind a wife and two children. Upon hearing news of Weldon’s passing, drivers and race officials cancelled the remainder of the event, offering instead a 5-lap parade of the remaining race cars circling at pace-lap speeds as a bizarre impromptu tribute to Wheldon.
The incident that claimed Weldon’s life involved fourteen cars in total, several of which went airborne and erupted into fireballs as they disintegrated against the track’s catch-fence. The cause of the accident was evident from numerous camera angles—too many cars running too fast and too close on a track designed for the big, heavy cars of NASCAR, not the light, open-cockpit cars of IndyCar.
Not since February 18th, 2001, has the motorsports community been so rocked by death. That day, the legendary Dale Earnhardt passed away after a last-lap crash in the final turn of the Daytona 500. Like Weldon, Earnhardt had been racing wheel-to-wheel in tight packs, literally bumping off opponents at speeds approaching 200 mph. And like Wheldon’s crash, the crash that claimed Earnhardt’s life was the result of a minuscule miscalculation—had Earnhardt’s car been a few inches further up the track, it would have slotted in front of Sterling Marlin’s to secure a third place finish instead of tapping Marlin’s car and spinning down to the track apron, then up into the path of Kenny Schrader’s car. Earnhardt might have even gone on to clinch the record-breaking eighth title that so many analysts predicted would be his that year, and gone on to retire as CEO of his own motorsports empire.
But Earnhardt’s car didn’t clear Marlin’s, and in the aftermath of Earnhardt’s crash, NASCAR instituted sweeping changes to improve driver safety. As a result, many NASCAR drivers have been spared serious injury or death due to the safety measures initiated after Earnhardt’s death.
Case in point, Jimmie Johnson, Saturday, October 15th, who slammed the wall at Charlotte Motor Speedway in a crash eerily reminiscent of Earnhardt’s, whose car hit that wall so hard it seemed to buckle under the strain. Johnson’s car was simply mutilated by the impact, and Johnson climbed out afterward to discuss how the crash affected his hopes for a record-setting sixth consecutive title with reporters.
That Johnson was able to speak to reporters is a testament to the changes NASCAR has made since Earnhardt died. That Earnhardt died is a testament to how slow the racing community reacts to such tragedy.
After all, Earnhardt was the forth driver to die in nine months from injuries sustained inside the cockpit of a NASCAR-sanctioned vehicle (the third driver, Tony Roper, passed away as Earnhardt was winning his final race in Talladega in October of 2000). It was May of 2000 when Adam Petty died at Loudon; NASCAR determined that all safety systems acted as designed and that Petty’s death wasn’t due to the car or the safety devices within it. Two months later, Kenny Irwin died in an identical wreck on the same track as Petty. Again, NASCAR deemed the status quo as acceptable.
Would Earnhardt be alive today if Petty’s death had been taken more seriously?
Would Earnhardt be alive today if NASCAR hadn’t implemented a brand new series of rules to force the cars to run closer together in tight groups at Daytona, a decision made at the insistance of the fans, who were tired of the older style of racing at Daytona where the cars raced in single-file lines and there was relatively little bumping, banging, or jockeying for position?
Woulda, coulda, shoulda.
It’s ironic that the same style of racing in which Earnhardt died, a style of racing many feel is particularly suited to NASCAR’s full-bodied stock cars, is the same style of racing IndyCar tried to recreate at Las Vegas, with cars that are decidedly not suited for bumping and banging. Add to that IndyCar’s insistance on running more cars that typical on the track, many piloted by drivers without the level of experience that such a race requires, and the event was a recipe for disaster.
Open-wheel racing in general, and IndyCar racing specifically, has a tepid history at high-speed, high-banked oval tracks. Crashes at these venues are typically spectacular, making highlight reels for years to come. Fans love these races because they tend to produce lots of passing, lots of excitement.
Las Vegas Motor Speedway was originally designed to host both NASCAR and IndyCar events, and as such, it’s corners were relatively flat. This is the preferred configuration for IndyCar, as the cars are light and extremely responsive, higher banking tends to make IndyCars unstable and difficult to drive. Flat corners are what these cars were designed for, and the more banking that the cars encounter, the twitcher they can potentially become.
The opposite is true for NASCAR’s stock cars. The typical NASCAR stock car is heavy and anything but responsive. Those cars rely on track banking to throw them around the curve, and without banking, the drivers must slow to a relative crawl to navigate the corner. Forget side-by-side racing or even passing, that kind of racing in NASCAR typically only happens on high-banked tracks.
Since NASCAR is the top form of motorsport in the United States, Las Vegas Motor Speedway added huge amounts of banking to the corners in order to produce a better race for NASCAR fans. This also created a track unsuited to IndyCar racing, at least in its current form. Next year, IndyCar is instituting a next-generation car that is designed to prevent the kind of wheel-to-wheel contact that launches open-wheel race cars into the air. If only they had brought the new car out at Las Vegas this year.
The tragedy of Dan Wheldon’s death isn’t that a race car driver died—drivers know, accept, and embrace that risk every time they strap into the car. The tragedy is how IndyCar knew of the potential dangers yet chose to continue the event. Racing at Las Vegas was a marketing stunt, pure and simple. The Izod IndyCar series is on its financial deathbed and promotors were counting on the Las Vegas event to infuse the series with media attention. Thus more cars were slotted to start the Las Vegas race than start the Indianapolis 500 in order to create a bigger spectacle. Wheldon, who didn’t have a full-time ride for 2011, was put in the position of starting the race last for a chance at winning $5 million dollars if he could finish first, a gimmick intended to entice one of NASCAR’s superstars to the race. And even though there was much speculation that a huge crash would result from the configuration of the cars on that track, nothing was done to make the racing any safer. If it hadn’t been two cars making contact, a large crash was inevitable from a mechanical failure or a blown tire. The 225+ mph racing simply left no room for error and the close proximity of the cars to each other meant that the drivers themselves had no time to react to any danger that presented itself.
One can only hope for the kind of sweeping changes in IndyCar that NASCAR went through after Earnhardt died. But perhaps the biggest change that needs to come from Wheldon’s death has nothing to do with the cars, but with the sanctioning body. Death is something that looms over every automobile race run, but intentionally scheduling events at tracks where the levels of danger are known to be higher is simply unacceptable. Creating a media circus around that danger is even worse. And the fact that Las Vegas had the biggest crowd of nearly any IndyCar race this year, despite being such a dangerous track for open-wheel racing, may be proof that the biggest change of all needs to come from the fans, who seem to enjoy the automotive equivalent of circus sideshows more than actual racing as it was meant to be.