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Dan Wheldon Didn’t Have To Die

Posted in IndyCar, News, Racing Coverage, Rants & Raves by Kurt Ernst | October 17th, 2011 | 4 Responses |

Dan Wheldon at the White House in 2010. Image: Jim Greenhill

By now you’ve heard the news about two-time Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon’s death at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and you’ve seen the videos on the news or on YouTube. There’s no sense in re-hashing the facts of the accident, since enough sources have already done that; instead, I’m here to argue the case that Dan Wheldon didn’t have to die.

Racing is an inherently dangerous sport, from the club level to the professional ranks. Safety advancements have made it much safer than in decades past, but you can’t have wheel-to-wheel racing, at speeds north of 200 miles per hour, without a significant amount of risk. Drivers know this, and they’re willing to take risks for their teams, their fans and (ultimately) their careers.

Sanctioning bodies and leagues exist to keep the drivers safe, and it was IndyCar that let Dan Wheldon down. In the interest of creating a “spectacle” for the season ending race in Las Vegas, IndyCar ignored drivers concerns about several factors, including:

Speeds at Las Vegas: As a banked tri-oval, Las Vegas Motor Speedway can see speeds of 225 miles per hour from IndyCars, speeds which rival those at Indianapolis. Worse, the track width allows three and four-wide racing, which is exciting for fans but unbelievably dangerous for drivers. A single mistake can have disastrous consequences, as was proven in yesterday’s race.

A big field is a dangerous field: Most IndyCar events had some 24 cars competing, but for the season finale, IndyCar wanted a crowded field. A total of 34 cars started the race, including a few piloted by drivers with little experience racing on high speed oval tracks. Likewise, there were veteran racers in the field, some of whom hadn’t competed in more than a one or two races this season.

A week isn’t sufficient time to prep for a track like Las Vegas: At the Indy 500, teams get a full month of testing and seat time to prepare for the race. Las Vegas has similar speeds, yet drivers (many of who were unfamiliar with their cars) had just one week to prepare. Instead of making a mistake in practice, it was a mistake made by a rookie during the race that ultimately caused the crash.

No amount of arm-chair quarterbacking is going to bring Dan Wheldon back, but changes can (and should) be made to the series to prevent another tragic loss in the coming years. Tracks like Las Vegas should require a different set of rules than slower, more forgiving tracks, and maybe rookie drivers should be more closely observed. A taller SAFER barrier would keep cars from going into the catch fence, whose reinforced mountings can be deadly to drivers who get airborne. Improved cars, now featuring semi-enclosed rear wheels for the 2012 season, should prevent drivers from getting airborne after contact.

Changes need to be made to the league as well, since growing ratings or boosting race attendance should never take priority over driver safety. A change in league management is long overdue, and I sincerely hope the next group of leaders includes at least one former driver. Wheldon’s death is a tragedy, but the biggest tragedy will be allowing IndyCar to continue without significant changes from the top down.

Image credit: Jim Greenhill, Creative Commons 2.0

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4 Responses

  1. ds440 says:

    Bravo – well said! Couldn’t agree more. The whole concept of that weekend was disgusting….too many cars, too many drivers with questionable oval experience, a track not suited for open wheeled cars to begin with….and a $5million bounty. Honestly, the leadership of the IRL – Barnhart, Bernard – should be terminated immediately. They don’t have the drivers’, teams’, or even the fans’ best interest in mind. While everyone understands the inherent dangers in racing, this is not the first incident in the IRL that seems to have been preventable. How many more cars have to end up in the catch fence before they “get it?” How many times have we seen cars at Texas or Indy getting airborne? As a diehard race fan, I find the IRL completely unwatchable. I’m not interested in watching their version of “spectacle” …and frankly, knowing the genius decision-makers involved, I’m not convinced the 2012 car, traveling at these speeds, will be any different. I hope I’m wrong. RIP Dan.

    • Kurt Ernst says:

      Thanks ds440, I appreciate you comments!

      I absolutely agree with the changes you suggest, and in a just world Bernard would be facing charges for Wheldon’s death. It won’t happen, and I’m sure Bernard and Barhnart have no intentions of stepping down.

      Change will come to the series because of Wheldon’s death, but that’s far too steep a price to pay. Had Bernard and Barnhart simply paid attention to the drivers’ concerns, Wheldon’s crash likely wouldn’t have happened.

  2. Rod Munch says:

    Agreed with ds440. The entire IRL management should resign for this serious breach of safety.

  3. Rob says:

    You guys are so far off base it’s insane. Who are you to know that having only a “week to prepare” to race at Las Vegas isn’t enough time? Indy is an exception, these drivers have spent their entire careers showing up to tracks on Thursday, practicing on Friday and Saturday and racing Sunday. Just because there was an accident doesn’t mean four more days of practice would have prevented it.

    And how would having the usual field of 26 effected this crash? Wheldon had already made up ten spots (I think) by the time of his crash which would put him in 24th when the crash happened. The crash started so much further up in the field that it would have happened even without those additional twelve cars.

    The speeds were definitely high and did play a role in the accident. However, calling for Bernard to resign is ridiculously ignorant. Barnhardt should resign, but that’s based on calls during races prior to this and has nothing to do with Vegas.

    Losing Wheldon was absolutely horrible for his family, friends, fans and for Indycar overall but spewing such amazing BS after an event like this is completely counter-productive.

    I would expect a “diehard race fan” to understand that Wheldon would have been behind the wheel of that car for a bonus of $50, let alone $5,000,000. Yes, this crash could have been prevented. The truth is EVERY crash can be prevented by not holding motorsports events but do we really want that?

    The biggest loser in all of this is his family, and all of the “experts” on the internet are too busy assigning blame to places that shouldn’t be blamed and should be focusing on Dan’s life and his accomplishments.