October 17th, 2011
12:10 PM ET

Wheldon's death a watershed moment for IndyCar?

Dan Wheldon at the IndyCar World Championships in Las Vegas, prior to his fatal crash.
Dan Wheldon at the IndyCar World Championships in Las Vegas, prior to his fatal crash.

The death of British driver and two-time Indy 500 champion Dan Wheldon in Sunday's IndyCar World Championships at Las Vegas was graphic in its violence, distressing in its drama and a tragedy for all who knew him.

The 33-year-old, who started the race seeking to win a $5 million purse as victor, drove to his grave participating in the sport he loved.

IndyCar, America's most popular version of open-wheeled racing, is currently enduring its darkest hour as Wheldon's family and friends try to deal with his sudden departure.

In an era when technological advances have been so rapid in areas, from communication to healthcare, it seems inconceivable that a sporting celebrity can still lose his life in such a high-profile way, what is more disconcerting for those in charge of motorsport in America is that this is not a lone incident in the modern era.

Driving a fragile human body at high speed around a circuit made of stone in a vehicle made for speed is always going to be a risky business but in the last 20 years there have been 15 deaths in IndyCar and NASCAR combined.

Tony Renna, Paul Dana and now Wheldon are Indy drivers to have died racing since the turn of the century.

Just compare this to safety record of Formula One, a rival division of elite motorsport in which former champion Jackie Stewart maintained there was a two in three chance he would die at the wheel such was the high ratio of driver fatality during the 1960s and 1970s.

Since 1953, 36 drivers have died racing in Formula One; nine of these fatalies were at American circuits, seven at Indianapolis two at Watkins Glen.

The last person to die in an F1 race was the legendary Ayrton Senna in 1994, when the Brazilian drove head on into a wall at the San Marino Grand Prix. Sadly, it was the second death that occurred at Imola that weekend as Austrian Roland Ratzenberger died in qualifying the previous day.

Senna's passing, the drama of which was captured brilliantly in a documentary feature film recently, acted as a catalyst to drive through a raft of safety features for both the cars and tracks that figures like Stewart had long been calling for.

The governing body and FIA administrators like Max Moseley and Bernie Ecclestone deserve credit for enforcing the development of innovations such as the carbon-fiber monocoque shell that protects the drivers on impact, the neck brace that cushions the movement of the head and tethered wheels that do not fly into the crowd in a crash.

Many of these measures have been used by American motorsport and, ironically, Wheldon was a key figure in testing the 2012 Dallara IndyCars which are set to introduce a whole host of new safety features to the track next season - one of the key aspects being a bar over the wheels which would prevent cars flying into the air as Wheldon's car did.

However, a major problem for the sport, and one which Formula One no longer deals with, remains the danger of the banked curves, the compact oval circuit and unforgiving perimeters to such marquee races in the United States.

The introduction of innovations like the SAFER barrier (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) and other varieties of soft walls have no doubt improved the situation significantly in terms how crashes are cushioned but, as the weekend's race demonstrated, the risk is still great.

The close promixity of the high-speed contest is central to the American culture of motorsport and it is this constraint that keeps the endeavor so perilous. In F1 there are run-off areas, gravel traps, tire walls and grassed areas that can provide a safety net.

In IndyCar, arguably, too many cars are racing at speeds that are too great leaving no time for reaction. The fact that safety cars are often counter-productive by actually bunching-up a more well-spread field can also compound what is already a difficult logistical challenge.

Maybe now is the time to question whether cars capable of such velocity should be racing on circuits like the Vegas bowl, which is signficantly smaller than the Indianapolis Speedway, and whether there is a need for drivers to have more margin for error in their sport?

In reaction to his friend's death, newly crowned IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti said: "[Racing] is what we love to do, it's what we live for." Hopefully, in the future it can also be a sport you do not have to die for.

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Filed under:  Motorsport
soundoff (44 Responses)
  1. David Hooper

    The write is quite right in his assertion that a serious look needs to be taken at the high speed oval concept.

    The ovals were built in a time when cars moved a lot slower than they do today, and the lack of run off areas and tyre barriers needs to be addressed urgently.

    October 17, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Reply
  2. Richs1

    Its obvious that along with high speed, the other critical contribution to this accident and others is the open wheel configuration of the cars! Until thats corrected, expect repeated tragedies!

    October 17, 2011 at 12:53 pm | Reply
  3. Dave

    The track at Las Vegas did have a SAFER barrier. Also, many tracks in which Indy cars compete are banked. One of the key factors that the author failed to consider was the number of cars and the track width. In addition to a requirement for SAFER barriers and car safety features a standard formula whose variables include track width, track length, and degree of bank steepness should be established to determine a safe number of entries.

    October 17, 2011 at 1:13 pm | Reply
  4. Daryl Woodson

    People always overeact. Racing is a dangerous sport. Regardless of the type of track, people are going to injured and deaths will occur. However, that's the nature of the sport and doesn't necessarily mean that "changes need to be made". Stuff happens and that's life. The fact that Indy Cars has lost only 3 people since 2003 is actually pretty good. Take a look at other sports, like american football for instance, and see how many people have died since 2003 just in High School alone...and that's just a simple field sport. This is racing people!!

    October 17, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Reply
  5. dale zoller

    IndyCar developed the SAFER barrier which is used at all oval circuits, several of the drivers were probably saved from serious injury or death by the SAFER barriers which protect the drivers from directly impacting the concrete walls. What killed Wheldon was flying into the catch fence with the cockpit facing the fence. Power also flew into the fence but cockpit out. The F1 race on the same day in South Korea was on a road circuit lined with concrete barriers without anything thing resembling a SAFER barrier – a fact the commentors constantly referred to. This was not even a street circuit where it is much harder to add the barriers. As for for the chassis, both F1 & IndyCar use state-of-the-art carbon fiber monocoque chassis – with the wheel tethers. The drivers in both series are required to wear the Hans device for head and neck protection.
    All this said, I am not a fan of high-speed ovals. To me it is patently ridiculous to to have 34 cars (more than start the Indy 500) on a 1.5 mile track (Indy is 2.5 miles) driving at speeds at or near those achieved at Indy. The sooner IndyCar gets away from these ovals the better.

    October 17, 2011 at 1:56 pm | Reply
  6. ELH

    Weldon's death was a sad and tragic event and my sympathy goes to his family and friends.

    As a former competitor in open-wheel racing I know and understand the dangers of the sport. It is easy to find fault with the venue, the automobiles, the organizers, the speed. Certainly these factors need to be examined to see if there are things that should be changed in order to bring additional safety to the sport.

    However, in oval track racing within NASCAR, violent crashes are a given. Track announcers (some of whom are well-known ex-drivers) pant breathlessly, predicting the "big one," referring to the seemingly inevitable multi-car pileup that is a frequent occurrence late in the race. Indeed, NASCAR officials have promoted 'paint-swapping' and pack racing as a means to bring more fan 'excitement' to their sport. Yet fatalities are almost non-existent.

    The principal reason for this is that the driver of a NASCAR race car is protected by a incredibly strong roll cage as well as a sheet-metal envelope that provides energy-reducing crush zones. Furthermore, the wheels are fully enclosed, preventing the type of tire-to-tire contact that can launch a race car 30 feet into the air.

    Short of eliminating open-wheel race car designs, there is probably not much that can be done to reduce the danger of serious injury or death in Indy car racing. Speeds can be reduced by simply limiting the engine horsepower. Over-the-wheel nerf bars and side bars to reduce tire-to-tire contact might be effective in some cases. Full roll cages similar to those seen on dirt track sprint cars would further protect drivers. Of course, such changes would also change the nature of the contest, probably leading to the demise of Indy Car racing as we know it.

    October 17, 2011 at 2:39 pm | Reply
  7. IndyFan

    Actually, it is because of all the added safety features that more drivers didn't die or get seriously injured in that crash...I am sure Indy will continue to learn from this tragedy and continue to make these cars safer for the drivers (and fans – I feel the catch fence can be a double edged sword)

    Wheldon died doing what he loved and he was well aware of the risks involved with his career choice...

    With that said, I feel Indy has really pushed safety to the limit with some of their decisions this year in order to provide a more entertaining product. This field was probably too big and I am also wondering if Wheldon was pushing a bit too hard early on because of the $5 million bonus.

    Other poor decisions were to resume the race a few weeks ago when the drivers were BEGGING the officials not to restart because of rain and also the gimmicky two race event at Texas that had many of the faster drivers starting the second race in the back behind much slower cars...these decisions were made with the race fan in mind and NOT the safety of the drivers...

    October 17, 2011 at 2:41 pm | Reply
  8. anon

    One thing the author forgets is there is not safety mechanism for when your car is run over. Wheldon's car had the top cut right off of it. You can have all the safety barriers in place but decapitation of a vehicle almost certainly guarantees the driver will be killed. Further eliminating an oval race would most likely kill the Indy series. This isn't like F1 and while they have cut the number of oval races down abandoning them would mean the end to the sport. CART tried that and we saw what happened.
    Finally what caused this accident was not because of a banked oval. It was because of tire to tire contact which can catapult an open wheel car. At the least it will cause an open wheel car to lift and spin. I think its funny how all the people that don't watch open wheel racing come out of the woodwork and start making comparison without actually understanding the sport. The truth is the cars have been doing these speeds for quite some time now. They have on a couple of occasions slowed the cars down but you can slow them down all you want and a crew chief will find a way to make his drivers car faster. That is a part of racing and if you don't like it then don't watch it. No one is forcing you too and its not your family member that was killed either.

    October 17, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Reply
  9. Ron Hulsebus

    I agree with Mr. Hooper and Mr. Zoller...it's not the car design, it's the venue! Brian Barnhart and his cohorts at the top of IndyCar must take some responsibility here. Contracting to put 34 open wheel race cars on a 1.5 mile banked, smooth & grippy race track where they will almost constantly be racing at around 200mph and only inches from each other?? What's next...IndyCar at Bristol?
    F1 races exclusively on road circuits, which means, at most, they might hit a max speed of around 200mph once during a lap at the end of a long straight. Also, a road course inherently spreads the field...the most dangerous corner from the perspective of too many cars in one place at the same time is turn # 1 on the first lap.
    At Vegas, the drivers were discussing the fact that they could run the track "flat"...meaning, because of the banking and track grip, they could constantly lap at full throttle without lifting. So...lap after lap at full throttle, three and four cars wide, and inches from the car in front and behind. That's Talledega-style pack racing, and it shouldn't be allowed with open-wheel, open-cockpit race cars.

    October 17, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Reply
  10. NDirish23

    this track was designed for NASCAR and not IndyCar. It was the fact his car impacted the catch fence, drivers side first, into a catch fence pole that killed him. Brunt force trauma to the head. His death is a big loss in the racing community, but one freak accident can change a sport. Look at the changes made after Dale Sr. died at Daytona. This could be the best thing that ever happened to IndyCar – too bad it took a death to start the change. I really liked Wheldon in his underdog role, it fit him well! RIP!

    October 17, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Reply
  11. Gary Wood

    Motor racing can be dangerous, that's a risk the drivers take & what draws fans. I like the skill required to handle the power & forces the driver must deal with. I've ridden motorcycles for 46 years & raced them at high speed. I've sold motorcycles & ATVs for over 25 years. I've had many close calls that have made me a better rider. Some of my customers have had serious accidents & a few have died doing something they loved. I still ride & enjoy the sport. I hope Indycar keeps the high banked ovals . I have seen the best racing outside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at these tracks. R I P Dan, My prayers for your wife & sons. I hope heaven has racing for him & I !!!

    October 17, 2011 at 3:48 pm | Reply
  12. dale zoller

    to anon – lack of ovals is not what killed CART. CART raced on ovals, road coures and street courses. CART raced at Indy and ovals as diverse as Michigan and Milwaukee. What killed CART was Tony George's Irrelevant Racing League (and ego). I attended every CART race at Mid-Ohio (along with 60-70,000 of my closest friends). Yes, the crowds dwindled after the split – but not because of a lack of oval races. When they changed over to ChampCar, the ovals were basically eliminated, but I think that had more to do with track ownership and politics than ChampCar's not wanting ovals as part of the series.

    October 17, 2011 at 3:53 pm | Reply
  13. Reflecto

    This is a sad day, and there have been a lot of sad days in the past. Remember too Eddie Sachs, Dave MacDonald , Tony Bettenhausen, Jerry Unser, Swede Savage, Art Pollard, Jim Malloy, Scott Brayton, Mike Spence, Gordon Smiley, and Jovy Marcelo, to name but a few great drivers who lost their lives in Indy cars. In every case lessons were learned and applied that made racing safer for every driver that came after. It will never be safe, but today's drivers have much to thank these men for. Those earlier deaths have made it far more likely they will live to tell their grandkids tales of their glory days, and not only racers. The lessons learned from these terrible crashes have been applied to passenger cars as well. I'm old enough to remember what it was like before the arrival of energy absorbing steering columns, crumple zones, and even seat belts – all derived from racing. It was very bad. Anyone who has been in a serious wreck in the past 20 years and survived probably owes these drivers a debt of gratitude. They will never take all the risk out of racing, and if they did no one would want to race. I hope there are more lessons learned and applied as a result of this terrible crash, so that future race drivers will have a better chance of becoming retired race drivers.

    October 17, 2011 at 3:57 pm | Reply
  14. Tim

    As a racing competitor, this does shake you up, but competitiion is why we do it. No matter how you play this out, racing is a much safer form of sports than many others.

    That said, the current obsession with the big American series for close competition and "cost saving" has resulted in spec series that promote the issues that caused the crash. In the IRL, there is no difference mechanically or functionally between the cars, with mandated chassis, bodies, aero and engines. Add to that tires that grip at a ridiculously high rate – higher than the max speed the cars can attain, and anything that resembles proper setup to make a car fast relative to the competitors is out the window. All any driver had to do at Las Vegas was keep their foot flat to the floor. If the grip of the tires is reduced to where the drivers actually have to lift in the corners and the teams actually had to put a good setup in the car, the field would have been significantly spread out and there may have been time for some of the driver to avoid the initial wreck.

    At least in NASCAR, as much as I detest Goodyear, the tires are lacking enough grip to allow a driver to actually control his car and the teams to engineer proper setups.

    Until the IRL deals with tires, this type of pack racing on high-speed ovals is going to keep happening, no matter what is done with the new 2012 car.

    October 17, 2011 at 4:23 pm | Reply
  15. Barry

    When a 'pack of cars, goes into a corner, 'G' force's press their car 'into the track', when they come 'off' the corner, the pressure releases, and the car gets momentarily 'loose/light'! We have all seen it in replays. When you have that many cars creating turbulence, and are racing 'wheel to wheel', the chances of contact are GREAT! Lets assume they were doing 150 MPH, there is 6-12 inches between one wheel and another wheel of a different car, That 'lightness', plus the turbulences created, WILL move a car! It happines ALL the time! In this case, the outcome was horrific! Too many starters(cars)!, a track that some of the drivers don't like!, (a lot of drivers talked about the problem of 'coming off' a corner as a potential safety issue)! I hope this will inspire some 'talk' by all parties concerned! Why not have a 'staggered' start like they do in F1?

    October 17, 2011 at 5:21 pm | Reply
  16. Gene

    I have read many comments about having Indycar races on ovals, be they high banked, or on "flat" ovals.
    Open wheel racing, since motor racing began in America, have mostly been run on ovals, brick, concrete, asphalt, dirt or wood boards, with varying degrees of banking. It wasn't until the late '60s, early '70's that Indycars ran road courses, and street circuits.
    If you look at old pictures, movies, etc. the amount of "safety" related measures in oval racing was so simple as to be non-exsistant, and as accident occured, measures were taken. Like life itself, motor racing learned from its mistakes!
    Are the cars themselves too fast? Probably, but even when they do attempt to slow them down, somebody finds a way to speed them up. That's progress due to new technology!
    And there are the drivers who can adapt to the technology, and thrive in the sport. Just like there are baseball players, football players, etc., who excel at their sport, because they have that rare ability to succeed in what they do, and love what they do.
    I mourn the passing of Dan Wheldon, not just as a driver, but as a family man, a person who lived his dreams, and in the past year, helping to develop a newer and safer car for his fellow drivers. In the end, that may be his biggest legacy to the sport he loved!
    God speed, and God rest!

    October 17, 2011 at 5:50 pm | Reply
  17. Racer

    Soon racing will be restricted to drivers being confined in a padded room while they guide remote control mini race cars many miles away via closed circuit TV. What, however, will they do about having to drive to the padded room from their hotel? There will be uncontrolled idiots driving talking on their cell phones who make the drive dangerous!

    Anyone stupid enough to use a cell phone while driving should be arrested.

    October 17, 2011 at 6:17 pm | Reply
  18. Prof M H Settelen

    The Presiodent must have an International Inquiry heade by say,
    Sir Jacquie Stewart.

    October 17, 2011 at 7:03 pm | Reply
  19. Billie

    I am severely saddened by the loss of Dan Wheldon, to his family and friends my deepest sympathy. Reading the other posts it's obvious that most people are aware of the dangers of racing.
    ELH said it best though, Indy cars, Sprint cars and other forms of open wheel racing are the the most dangerous. Once the tires of one car contact the tires of another it's mayhem.
    Not much can be done to minimize the danger without changing the configuration of the open wheel car entirely, which I doubt drivers of these cars would encourage. It is the nature of the beast, it is the heart of the sport.
    I think that the fact that this was the last race of the Indy Car series for the season, the fact that the accident occured in the early laps of the event and the prize at the end of the race is what made for the congestion at the beginning of the race and the tragedy it involved. If this accident would not have happened so early in the race it would have been less likely to have occured at all once the field was spread out after another ten or twenty laps.
    As unfortunate as this is, it is still racing and the danger will always be there regardless of what has or could be done to prevent incidents of this nature from happening in the future
    I feel that Dan would still encourage that Indy Car racing continue as it is, as other current, past and future drivers would concur, it is what they do and they are aware of the danger when they get in and tighten the belts.
    Life is dangerous period, there is only one way out, doing what you love when your time comes is the best way to move on. I get some comfort in thinking Dan is running hot laps with the racers that proceeded him to the asphalt arena in the sky, hoping that we all will one day see him race again

    October 17, 2011 at 7:08 pm | Reply
  20. Speedracer99

    The answer is simple. if you want to run an indycar race like stockcars then have the same safety measures as stockcars. I realize we make a choice to race,but history tells us that rules are meant to protect racers from themselves. 34 open wheel cars indy at Vegas does not work. They also just recenty rebanked the track to more suit stock car racing. Just thank God it did not happen doing into the front stretch dog leg. That mess would of been through the fence.

    October 17, 2011 at 7:46 pm | Reply
  21. Don James

    Ben Wyatt states in his article on Dan Wheldon: "Hopefully, in the future it can also be a sport you do not have to die for." Ben Wyatt is an idiot. The reason mankind races, climbs mountains, dives the deeps of the oceans, and probes space is precisely related to the risk involved. Take away the risk, and you take away the incentive to accomplish new goals..

    Sure, increasing safety is an admirable goal. But you can never make ANY endeavor 100% safe. And Dan Wheldon did not die due to an accident. He died due to the greed of Indy Car and Las Vegas Speedway management in putting 34 cars on a too-small track.

    October 17, 2011 at 8:12 pm | Reply
  22. Don James

    Enough already with the SAFER Barrier talk! Hitting a SAFER Barrier designed for a 3500 pound NASCAR vehicle will be just like hitting concrete for a 1400 pound Indy car.

    October 17, 2011 at 8:23 pm | Reply
  23. Rod

    IRL has really no choice but to race on ovals if it wants to be close to urban centers and easy access to crowds. Tracks like Road America and Watkins Glen are too far from urban centers to draw the easy numbers of people urban area race tracks can.

    The Milwaukee Mile where Indy car racing is also run has hosted auto-racing events every year since 1903, making it the oldest continuously operating auto racing facility in the world. It was a dirt tract until 1953 and probably should have stayed that way. In 1959 Ed Elisian burned to death at the Mile, Ronnie Duman died there in 1968 and CART racer Jim Hickman was killid in a 1982 during a practice session at the Mile.

    We all know the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has had a total of 56 deaths in its history, while it is not a full oval it has banked turns and walls with no run off areas. The truth is fans like crashes and the risk of death is part of the attraction of auto racing.

    October 17, 2011 at 8:52 pm | Reply
  24. Josh

    @Don Jame - the safer barrier is designed for a race car period. Not for the weight of one - the barrier is the same for both Indy Car & NASCAR.

    And I just wonder if the walls should be made a bit higher. It seems that just a 3 foot wall isn't enough anymore - what would it have been like if the wall was say 5 foot tall. I don't know the answer any more than you - but I think at this time it's a valid question. Just like how can we make the catch fences safer, they've always been a problem and its still the part of racing that hasn't changed since there were first installed.

    October 17, 2011 at 9:16 pm | Reply
  25. nish

    sad..

    October 17, 2011 at 9:58 pm | Reply
  26. Perry Capurro

    My sympathies to the Weldon family and IndyCar racing. Hopefully something good can come out of preventing these cars from becoming airborne and seriously injuring drivers. If NASCAR could fine the solution, so can IndyCar. Racing is racing and there is always a risk, but more safety needs to be built intom this growing sport to keep drivers, fans and pic crews safe.

    Best wishes and RIP Dan Weldon.

    October 17, 2011 at 10:11 pm | Reply
  27. Denis

    This was another senseless trajedy!

    When you take cars and drive them fast you are setting yourself up for just this result. Indy racing is a thrill for many but racing a car around in circles has absolutely no value to the world other than for fans enjoyment. Watching cars go around in circles for a couple of hours has got to be one of the strangest things man does. Someone eventually wins and so what?

    October 17, 2011 at 11:16 pm | Reply
  28. nibbz

    only so much you can do when ur going that fast, these cars are
    some of the safest machine built but at 225 MPH ur traveling
    like a friggin bullet...litterly......maybe they should restrict the speeds...just a little.....lol 3 or 4 yrs from now they ll be going 240mph.then 270 ect...

    October 17, 2011 at 11:41 pm | Reply
  29. Drethon

    The NASCAR series run fine at these tracks, I'm not even sure the last time there was a serious injury in any of the NASCAR series, particularly at smaller tracks like Vegas.

    On the other hand Indy cars don't stay on the ground as well as NASCAR vehicles do and don't handle odd impact angles as well either (how in the world did Brad Kesolowski come out of Atlanta uninjured?). It seems like something should be done to help with this but I just don't know what you can do with open wheel cars other than slow em down...

    October 17, 2011 at 11:56 pm | Reply
  30. Andy

    Motoracing, or synchronized speed exhibition?

    I agree with the comments of Tim. Too much grip on spec racers ends up putting the cars into a pack that is impossible to maintain safely lap after lap, race after race. Everyone involved from Owners to Drivers, Fans to Race Promoters, knew this was going to happen. "The Big One". Its spoken of all the time in NASCAR as well for the same reasons.

    Although its counter intuitive, with people thinking that the cars are too fast for the tracks, its really that they're too cheap and too low tech relative to what they're being asked to do. The governing bodies have legislated away the engineering breakthroughs that would lead to a particular car and driver combination having a better engine, chassis, tires, or setup in relation to their competitors. Fields used to be strung out, not this packed up, artificial racing that has more in common with a circus act than with classic motor racing.

    Look at NASCAR at Talledega coming up–its to the point where the cars push each other down the track. Its weird and its asking for trouble.

    Having said all of that, Champ cars have flying out of oval tracks with great frequency for close to 100 years now. There was a safer, more advanced era during the 80s and 90s, but it got expensive and now we have these sticky tired, over downforced sleds and a whole new kind of trouble.

    October 18, 2011 at 12:24 am | Reply
  31. Mike

    The reason why there were 34 cars on the track is not because of track management. The reason was that this was the last race for this particular chassis, as the new car that Wheldon was testing will be used starting next season. So owners pretty much fielded a car to anyone that has a sponsor or enough money to race, who cares if it got dinged up, it was worthless after the race. There were some drivers that had limited experience (10 races or less) in the series, but they were all highly skilled and had experience in support Indy Lights series.

    Yes, in hindsight, maybe the field should have been limited to 28 or so (29 cars participated at Kentucky Speedway, which is also a 1.5 mile oval, two weeks ago). But the series wanted everyone to be part of the celebration that yesterday was supposed to be.

    October 18, 2011 at 1:47 am | Reply
  32. Chuck Fry

    The author seems unaware of the history of American open wheel racing. Racing Indy cars on ovals is not the problem; the problem is racing Indy cars on high-banked ovals designed for much slower stock cars. Voices within the Indy car community have been predicting a catastrophe like this for 15 years. The only surprise is that it took this long.

    I can only hope that the IndyCar series learns from this tragedy. In motorsports, all too often it takes a fatal accident to get the organizers to change a patently unsafe situation.

    Farewell Dan Wheldon, and condolences and prayers to his family.

    October 18, 2011 at 1:52 am | Reply
  33. George Roffe

    It is sad at best that CNN has published a sensationalized blog post such as this. The errors in this post give zero credibility to the author but certainly adds to the sensationalism. Knowledgeable followers of the sport will know the errors. Sadly, casual followers or non-followers will not and so the sensationalism will carry the day.

    Shame on you.

    It is indeed tragic that Dan Weldon gave his life to the sport he and so many others love. It guts me every time we lose someone. Please get your facts straight and skip the sensationalism.

    October 18, 2011 at 2:06 am | Reply
  34. Marc Bowers

    As a long time racing fan (50 years and counting) from Indiana, I am surprised at the reaction of so many to the death of Dan Wheldon. (sad? horrific? shocking? painfull?) Yes, it hurts to watch others suffer or to lose a friend. Dan was no doubt a fine fellow, with many friends and fans, and a beautiful family...but he was after all, a race car driver, first and foremost. What do people expect of any "daredevil"? The folks we like to watch cheat death? Are they to be immortalized as supermen when they "pass away"? 300 mph dragsters, hydroplane racing boats that "fly" on water (and routinely go airborne in spectacular fashion), 500 mph Reno air racing and the air show's "precision formation" military aircraft, motorcycle racing on ice, dirt or asphalt with truly graphic accidents I won't go into. The list of the many ways that man/machine/speed=DANGER is put to the test is both long and timeless. Even all the skills and megabucks of NASA couldn't make the Space Shuttles "safe" in the long run, and anyone climbing on top of those great big rockets to go blasting into outer space and tool around at 17,000 mph after watching video of the freaking tiles falling off on previous launches, well... they were "daredevils" too, certainly refined, but a bit of Evil Knevil in there somewhere. My parents first took me to short track events in Hoosierland when I was only 9 years old. I loved it, and still do. My Dad knew several racers, including guys that drove Offys at Indy. This would have been in the 1950s, and driver deaths and serious injury were "expected" as part of the deal. It was not an "if" question...it was who and when that was accepted, then set aside. In USAC midgets, Sprint Cars or "street stockers" on little tracks, really nice people got hurt really bad. I have seen my share of "carnage" in the last 50 years, but I've also seen tremendous improvements in safety, to the point that the old time racers seem to have been crazy to strap into their flimsy and highly flammable death traps! I agree completely with those who state that the DRIVERS KNOW the risks they take and make no bones about their love of their "sport" whatever may become of them or their fellow drivers. They are truly a different breed. And the fans who look to enjoy the thrills of high speed auto racing vicariously must be aware of the emotional risks they take when they know what can happen, and choose to "love" their drivers and their "sport" too. I think most fans (fanatics) are aware of the darker side of racing...in knowing that, as Eddie Cheever said, (paraphrase) "Death is always waiting in the shadows of the race track." At Las Vegas, a combination of things created a situation that pushed the envelope of driver performance and set up an IndyCar perfect storm scenario. The drivers knew it (and said so before and after the event), the announcers knew it, the track owners knew it, and Mr. 5 million bucks promoter also knew it. Dan Whelden knew it too, as he was way too smart to not recognize the dangers he was about to face. He accepted those risks, and paid the price. That only one driver died in such a high energy crash, and that no life threatening injuries were sustained by the other drivers involved was a tribute to the cars, drivers, and the safer barriers. Obviously the catch fence needs looking into (see Bobby Allison, but please, no restrictor plates), and a way to inhibit the airborne scenarios if possible. Bottom line for me is that 220 plus mph open wheel racing on banked ovals is truly an American tradition that cannot be overly refined without losing its adrenalized character. I believe the lesson has been learned in regards to IndyCars at Las Vegas. What we don't need is a knee jerk reaction that leads to lower speeds, rear fenders?, fewer cars on track and more road courses and/or flat tracks (snooze). IndyCar is already suffering from low fan interest and fighting for it's financial life as a lot of us are in this lovely economy. Surely most of us saw the huge number of empty seats at Vegas, very distressing for the future of racing in general. And holding up Formula One as the "safe" way to race unfortunately neglects to note that the F1 races are mostly boring with very little actual racing. More like an endurance event featuring 30 mph corners for those who like such things. Bottom line... the new IndyCar will no doubt offer some additional degree of safety for the drivers, but high speed/high drama open cockpit/open wheel cars will NEVER be "safe". The physics of the thing just won't allow for it. I once met a driver who did some racing in a Shelby Mustang (Elkhart Lake mostly). He had a simple way of relating to driver injury or death. When asked, "What went wrong?" his pat answer was..."He was going too fast." It is what it is.

    October 18, 2011 at 5:21 am | Reply
  35. Tom Pomeroy

    Auto Racing was, at one time, a form of skilled sport AND auto development. Most street cars today have more technology than a modern race car except for the Aero package that keeps them stuck down until interrupted.
    Today racing has become mostly a wreckfest for "entertainment"!
    Now it is a swarm of identical bees in a bowl. Need more excitement? Add more bees or make the bowl smaller!! What else can you do to make it more exciting. Call out the safety car for invisible debris. Bunch em up and maybe we will get another wreck.
    If anyone thinks that F1 racing is boring compared to bees in a bowl, they must have a very short attention span or no grasp of what racing, as a sport. is actually all about. It is not supposed to be a contact sport. Especially not in open wheel racing!!! Here's a news flash: the best racing is when there are NO wrecks....that is a display of immense skill and self control. That is real entertainment.
    When all the cars are identical it is NOT racing, it's a circus parade.
    When all development is outlawed there is no excitement other than crashes. Spec engines, chassis, tires, fuel, weight, push to pass buttons. No exceptional cars. Only a few exceptional drivers and a field filled with cars with more potential than the rest of the drivers.
    It appears that the majority of "bowl spectators" only go to see the wrecks and drink the beer and can't relate to anything else. The teams don't even build their own cars or their own engines anymore. Only the paint and stickers are different. Thank you NASCAR and IRL for making professional racing more boring than SCCA club racing.
    I'm sure it did wonders for making the sport more popular.
    I hope everyone at Vegas got their money's worth. You just saw the greatest spectacle in 14 laps, manufactured for your entertainment. Now go watch a good cock fight a demo derby and enjoy a 12 pack!!
    At least you won't be primed for bump drafting or comparing "attachment" sizes on your drive home.
    Ex Open wheel driver.
    Tp

    October 19, 2011 at 7:06 pm | Reply
  36. Dr. Ephesius Balthazar

    I don't think anything should change. These guys get behind the wheel in pursuit of prizes beyond what most of us will make in our lifetimes. It is a gamble with huge payoffs, but also huge risks. I just can't feel sorry for dudes that get one of the most fun jobs in the world with enourmous paydays. I think most people would gladly do it given the chance. What is sad is that he left a wife and kid behind. That is the real tragedy here.

    October 20, 2011 at 6:53 am | Reply
  37. John Ackerman

    I'm glad I took the time to read all the posts on this subject; it was nice to see some intelligent comments on the majority of the posts. First of all, my heartfelt sympathies to Dan Wheldon's wife, children, and family. He was obviously a good man.

    Like quite a few of the folks who posted here, I have been a fan of all types of motorsports for over 50 years. In the 70s, I competed in a stock car on Southern California dirt tracks, so I have some experience on the subject, albeit small.

    I think Wheldon's death could have been prevented by limiting the number of cars starting the race and possibly changing to venue to another, "slower" oval. There was no sense in starting 34 cars on this track regardless of the fact that the chassis was going away and were therefore expendable. I think a max of 20 to 25 cars would have helped the situation. Also, starting the cars with intervals between the rows may have helped get the field strung out sooner. I totally agree with the post here that stated that had ten or more laps transpired, the field would have been strung out. I believe that the Indianapolis 500 starting procedure was changed because of McDonald's and Sach's deaths during the early laps of the race. Sure, it isn't as exciting as the entire field bunched together when the green flag flies, but it certainly is safer.

    Perhaps something could be done in the area of the car's performance such as reducing horsepower or downforce (I'm not sure that the series hasn't already done that). And selecting ovals that have less banking than some of the 1.5 mile NASCAR tracks might be worth looking into too. To survive, I believe the series must have a percentage of oval tracks on its schedule.

    In the final analysis, open wheel cars have made great gains in driver safety, but because of their design they will never be completely safe. NASCAR has enjoyed a fatality free period since Dale Sr, but I think that the way NASCAR allows aggresive driving is just asking for trouble.

    October 20, 2011 at 4:48 pm | Reply
  38. Carol Hammond

    I don't feel comfortable with the persons in charge making decisions on what tracks to race and how many drivers are allowed per track. They know the car specs and someone should better manage the combination of track and its capabilities with the Indycar in mind. It seems more like marketing is making these decisions, versus the true racers!

    October 20, 2011 at 7:58 pm | Reply
  39. Tom Pomeroy

    Dear Dr.
    Paydays so enormous that a 2 time Indy winner couldn't even afford his own car or buy a ride for most of this season.
    There are damn few wealthy drivers because the costs are insane.
    Those huge payoffs are spent long before they are received.
    You want to know how to make a small fortune auto racing?
    Start with a large fortune plus enough time to work 2 full time jobs.
    I don't thing 1 single driver had the "most fun in the world" at Vegas.
    Before or after the 12th lap. They all knew it was beyond reason but "obligations" or pride made them start anyway.
    You don't think anything should change?!!
    You sir, are part of the problem, and clearly not worthy of a ticket to any real motorsport event!

    I guess if he had been single and childless there would be no "real tragedy!" or sadness.!

    Excuse me while I go puke!

    October 21, 2011 at 12:01 am | Reply
  40. Dragginbutt

    Obviously the writer is a fan of F1 and does not understand American auto racing, or the roots of open wheel racing here. First and foremost, Indycar racing is an OVAL based series. Most oldtimers feel the road courses have ruined the sport, not added to it. As long as Indycar has road courses, it will remain a second class feeder series to F1 and NASCAR. Many of the so called safety improvements in F1 are a direct result of work done in the US for both Openwheel and NASCAR and NOT the result of any major development work being done by F1. Get your data straight! What you would like to see is more road courses and what many Indy car fans want is to make the break from F1 influences. OVALS only! Is it dangerous, sure it is. And every driver that straps in understands that danger. The sport is about speed. And controlled excellence as a driver. People are going to die in this sport. That is inevitable. I doubt we will have any problems finding someone to fill Dans seat. Dan knew this, and moved halfway around the world to be a part of it.

    November 2, 2011 at 11:14 am | Reply
  41. Dragginbutt

    More than anything that contributed to the crash was the inability to see around the corner. Which led to cars coming into the crash scene at full speed. This would not change if the track was flat, so banking is not a factor in that regard. The safer barrier isn't worth a hoot if the car flies above it and into the fence. ALso, nobody is talking about two other factors. 1) Dan's car was hit by the nose of another car coming into the cockpit. (Watch the video). 2) Nobody wants to talk about driver error. There obviously was a lot of that going around that led up to and during the accident. Speed certainly played a part, but before people jump up and down and demand changes, you have to realize this was a "perfect storm" scenario. You had many more cars than the typical Indycar race on the track, and a field full of rookies who were making their first start on an oval and at Las Vegas. Auto racing in general has been quick to push younger drivers to the top levels and this lack of experience in the big show has it's effect too. Dan's death is a tragedy without a doubt, but knee jerk reactions by arm chair experts are not going to bring him back and will not make the sport any safer. History has shown that any attempt to slow the cars down by design influence has eventually resulted in FASTER cars, not slower. The REAL issue here is that cookie cutter racing produces a field of cars that all run at the same pace in bunches, and it does not allow cars to seperate. Until you solve that, these types of accidents will continue. This is a case of drivers out braving each other. Not out driving.

    November 2, 2011 at 11:30 am | Reply
  42. Dragginbutt

    This isn't F1, so stop making references and comparisons to it. Oval racing is in our blood. It is the AMERICAN sport. Like Tackle football is different than Soccer.

    Racing in general here in the US has been Oval based. Get it, understand it, get over it! We are not in any shape or form wanting to be F1's little brother. We chose ovals because it allows the fans to see the cars race all the way around the track.

    The cars are safe, the tracks are safe. As we speak the teams are prepping for next year. You can debate this ad nauseum and the season will still start on time. Dan would have wanted it that way.

    November 2, 2011 at 11:42 am | Reply
  43. Olinda Bucy

    If an article could really be perfect, yours would be the one I'd pick. I like how you've stated your views and kept things engaging.

    December 12, 2011 at 12:27 am | Reply
  44. Steve Casper

    Just to set the record straight; the seven "F1 drivers" that died at Indy in the mid- to late-'50s were not really F1 drivers- they were Indy 500 drivers who happened to be racing in an event that was part of the F1 series back then which only a few F1 drivers actually participated in (and none were ever killed at Indy). Kinda skews the stats to make F1 during those times appear even more deadly.

    January 12, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Reply

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