I have resisted jumping into the editorials on the tragic crash at the Las Vegas IndyCar event where Dan Wheldon lost his life. There have already been plenty of words spoken and written on the event. Still I am constantly asked what I think of what happened.
Racing is dangerous. The best driver in the world in the safest car in the world doesn’t guarantee that something like this won’t happen.
The IndyCar series has had its share of tragic accidents over the decades. In the days of the front engine roadsters there were often fiery crashes sweeping up several cars at once, and those were the days of no seatbelts, fire suits, and helmet standards. The cars burned gasoline then and the fuel tanks would rip open and fire would be everywhere.
Today there are driver protection cells designed into the race car tubs. There are fire suits along with helmets combined with hans devices. Five-point and six-point racing harnesses. Deformable structures are designed into the front and rear of the cars. Fuel is held in fuel cells that are designed to contain the ethanol when collisions occur. The tracks have SAFER walls on the ovals. Safety crews are well trained and equipped.
Still when you have opened wheeled race cars traveling at well over 200 miles per hour and closer together than you would travel on an Interstate highway at typical speeds, it doesn’t take much for this kind of mess to happen.
That said there were decisions made by IndyCar Racing that magnified the dangers.
There had been signs in other venues on short ovals such as the mess at Louden, New Hampshire.
The IndyCar series has been desperate to regain its “glory days” and reach the level that NASCAR enjoys in terms of attendance and income. They hired a guy who had brought professional bull riding from a regional event where the top riders were paid in thousands of dollars to an international televised extravaganza with riders now enjoy yearly incomes of a million dollars or better.
But open wheeled racing on ovals is not bull riding. Jamming 34 cars onto a 1.5 mile oval in Las Vegas at speeds in excess of 200 mph was ludicrous, especially with the inclusion of drivers with little experience and questionable talent. Topped off with a $5 million challenge to start in last place and finish in first.
The IndyCar series deserves to be a premiere open-wheeled racing event that is watched and appreciated the world over. It should not be treated or displayed as a reality show event where people’s lives are put at risk needlessly.
For the past several years the Indy series has been a spec series with every car being the same chassis, every engine being used is a Honda, and every tire being a Firestone. The intent was to keep costs down. It didn’t really work that way. Instead while the base costs were kept static the big teams like Penske and Ganassi plowed their money into the team’s members paying for the best engineers and technologies that money could buy. Anything left over was used to wine and dine the sponsors. Drivers paid for their rides. Gone were the days when innovation thrived.
Next year’s IndyCar gets new cars. Dan Wheldon was testing the new Dallara chassis and had a lot of enthusiasm for it. Notable design elements include bodywork that makes it far more difficult for cars to touch wheels or even launch one another. There are two chassis, one for road courses and one for ovals with more down-force generated via a functional under-tray. Engines will be available from other manufacturers with Chevrolet being a major supplier along with Honda. While the base chassis was all Dallara, other companies are allowed to perfect and supply optional bodywork. None were able to produce bodywork for the 2012 season, but are looking to do so in 2013.
With this disgusting end to the 2011 Indy race season one wonders if there is a future for this series. Paul Tracy is under pressure from his family to retire from IndyCar, and Danica Patrick had already announced that she was leaving for NASCAR well before the Las Vegas event.
There will be calls for a change to the catch fencing design since that is what effectively caused Dan’s traumatic end, but there is a lot more wrong with the way the Indy series has been recently run than just catch fencing.
There are plenty of opportunities to view the crash on YouTube and I won’t link to them here. Those videos will help you understand the mechanics of what happened, but they won’t show you what is wrong with the organization that runs the series.
My heart goes out to Dan’s family.