It has been just over a week since the tragic death of Dan Wheldon at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. It has been hard to figure out exactly how to proceed following such a tragic event without seeming disrespectful in moving on. I think it is important to move on, but it is more important not to forget. As a community and family, that is what Indycar has to do.
The most difficult part of the situation this past week has been hearing many uninformed “reporters” pretend to be Indycar experts. The majority ignores all Indycar coverage but latch onto a morbid news story in an effort to sensationalize it.
Attacks on Randy Bernard have been the most difficult for me to read. To blame the CEO of Indycar for the death of a racer would be like blaming the coach of a high school football team for the injury of a player. Randy Bernard has my support. He has performed admirably, and I believe there are few businessmen that could have handled the events and the task as Indycar CEO as well as he has. Randy has been exceptional in his handling of the sport and the many nuances of it. Indycar fans know running the circus that Indycar can be is not a task for the faint of heart.
Many people have commented on the amount of cars on the track for the race. Let us all keep in mind that the accident started in the front of the pack and wiped out the middle of the field with a few cars running in the very rear escaping the carnage. In this instance, if 24 cars had been on the track, the wreck would have still been huge and collected the cars running behind the initial contact. Maybe the number involved would’ve been slightly less if fewer cars had been in the race, but the outcome would have been the same…a huge wreck.
Rookies have taken a lot of flack for being in the race. Indycar has a process in place for rookies before they are allowed to race on ovals. The rookies in the race have raced at other ovals in the series and have been winners in Firestone Indy Lights. It is absurd to state that rookies shouldn’t have been allowed to race. If they never race at tracks like Las Vegas they will never get the experience they need. If they never gain that experience and are never allowed on the high-speed ovals…well, how will they ever learn? Sometimes the steps up any ladder, whether it be between racing series’ or a corporate ladder, may be large, but they are steps that must be taken.
Another criticized aspect has been the speed of the cars. It is true that 220+ is extremely fast and is very dangerous. But, the danger does not completely reside in the speed alone but, it is how the car reacts at that speed…specifically in an accident. If a car could run 250mph without getting airborne and into the catch fence, and the safety cell containing the driver could withstand an impact at that speed, I feel 250mph would “safe”. Conversely, if a car was running 140mph and could get airborne easily, I would not consider 140mph safe. For me, the entire conversation revolves around keeping the cars safely on the ground regardless of the speed in question. Ironically, the new chassis for 2012 contains measures to help keep cars from becoming airborne when making contact. But, only reducing the speed would just help proliferate “pack racing” which is the main reason the accident was so massive. In the Dan Wheldon incident, the way his car hit the catch fence, I don’t believe going 20mph slower would have saved him.
Las Vegas Motor Speedway has also received criticism. This is highly unfair because this accident could have happened at a number of different tracks the series races on and has raced on in the past. In a broader view, 1.5 mile, high-banked ovals have been put under the microscope as being unfit for Indycar. All 1.5 mile ovals are capable of having a safe, fast Indycar race. Once again, analysis should turn to the cars. The combination of identical cars with identical engines, high downforce, a tire that does not give up any grip, and low-horsepower work together to create pack racing. Basically, sit down, floor it, and turn left until the race is over without lifting. If downforce is reduced on the cars the drivers will have to lift in the corners. If the car has more horsepower with lower downforce the drivers will have to lift even more in the corner. If the tire gives up more grip over the course of a run the handling characteristics of the cars will change between pitstops. These factors create differences in the cars helping them spread out and eliminates pack racing. This also puts the race back in the hands of the drivers with the best set-ups and best drivers rising to the front.
Closed cockpits have also been discussed. In looking at photos of Dan’s car as it slid down the track after making contact with the fence, it is easy to see the roll-hoop had been sheared off. Having a closed cockpit, whether a fighter-jet style canopy or a design complete with an A-pillar, most likely wouldn’t have helped save Dan, in my opinion. If the forces exerted on the car were enough to rip the roll-hoop off, I do not feel any type of canopy system would’ve helped. I don’t have reams of computer data to support that statement, so that is a non-scientific assessment. I believe that the lack of a roof actually helps save Indycar drivers from injury in many cases. In roll-over accidents the roll-hoop does its job in protecting the drivers head when a roof may have crushed in on a driver and made extraction difficult or caused more injury from crushing into the cockpit. In saying all of that, if evidence came out supporting the fact that closed cockpits would be safer in all instances, I would support a move to have them.
Of the more absurd accusations, the ones revolving around the $5million dollars and that affecting Dan’s driving or judgment are beyond ridiculous. If these people paid any attention at all to the wreck, it is plainly obvious that Dan was essentially an innocent bystander. The claim that money would have caused Dan to drive recklessly is an insult to his talent and his character. Racecar drivers are driven by the love of the sport, not money. If you paid them in bubblegum, most would be happy just to be in a racecar doing what they love. Furthermore, Indycar drivers are not movie stars or NFL players. They are not paid outrageous sums of money. If money were a primary motivator for Indycar drivers, they would’ve bolted for NASCAR or Hollywood years ago.
Another aspect of the challenge, the fact that Dan had to start from the rear of the field, has also been criticized. Dan made a qualifying attempt and qualified 29th of the 32 drivers that made attempts. Dan would have started from the back of the field even if that stipulation of the challenge did not exist. In my mind, starting from the rear of the field because of the challenge essentially had no bearing on the outcome.
With all that said, I hope this is a learning experience for all. It has to be. The best lessons in life are often learned through tragedy and this is no exception. I often wonder how many other drivers may have been injured or killed if Dale Earnhardt hadn’t been involved in his fatal accident. That is not to say that it only takes a hero dying to save others and drive change, but it is often the catalyst needed to create positive and beneficial reaction and changes. Indycar has a bright future, and despite the darkness of the past week, the future may be brighter because of what happened. As the old saying goes, “It is always darkest before dawn.”