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