Anyone who has grown up as an auto-racing fan knows that Sundayâ€™s tragic accident of Dan Wheldon being killed is nothing new. Too many times have I been in this situation before. Watching a race and having the notion of how precious life is thrown in my face, and how quickly it can end.
Dan Wheldon died in a horrific 15-car accident on just the 11th lap of the Indy Car Seriesâ€™ season finale at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Although the next few days will be spent mourning, and celebrating the life of a great champion.
In May of this year, Dan joined the illustrious list of drivers to win multiple Indianapolis 500s; he was the 18th man to do so. Unfortunately on Sunday, Dan joined the notorious list of drivers who won the 500 and would not live to see the next yearâ€™s running of the Greatest Spectacle in racing. He joins Gaston Chevrolet (1920), Ray Keech (1929) and George Robson (1946).
The amount of irony with this accident is incredible. Wheldon, who was also the 2005 series champion, won Mayâ€™s race and in the Winnerâ€™s Circle joked that he was now unemployed. The economy has hit the world of motor sports hard, and Wheldon was a victim, finding himself without a ride.
Instead of being bitter, Dan showed his true character by continuing to promote the sport while unemployed. Dan served as a color commentator for multiple races of the Indy Car Series this season.
Dan entered Sundayâ€™s race to help fulfill a promise made by IndyCar president Randy Bernard. Bernard had promised $5 million to any non-series regular driver who could win the race starting from the 34th spot on the grid. Wheldon was deemed eligible and promised to split the money 50/50 with one lucky fan. Wheldon entered with intentions purely to promote the sport and bring publicity to the race, especially when you consider that Dan would have taken less than $50,000 from the bonus if he had won.
He even was the test-driver for the new IndyCar set to be unveiled next year.
Sadly, of the 34 drivers entered in Sundayâ€™s race, Dan is the only driver who had driven the new car, yet he will be the only one of the 34 that will never race it in competition. Series officials promise this new car is safer, but personally I am not very optimistic, and Sunday opened up a world of trouble for the Indy Racing League.
Even with the new car design, the mayhem of the 15-car wreck showed two glaring weakness that clearly have not been addressed with the new design. Lightweight cars added to insanely high speeds means that when a car becomes airborne, it launches uncontrollably. With the cars flying violently through the air, anything can happen.
The other gigantic weakness is that drivers are still clearly exposed. I am writing this before the results of Wheldonâ€™s autopsy, but after watching the replay of the wreck multiple times, I think it is pretty safe to assume that the â€œunsurvivable injuriesâ€ will turn out to be major head trauma. As Danâ€™s car flew through the air it appeared that the top of the car made impact with the catch-fence first, meaning his head hit the metal fence at over 200 mph.
Drivers had expressed concern about IRL officials choosing to race at Las Vegas. It was the first time the IRL raced at the speedway since 2000, but back then, the track was considerably more flat. The track has since been redone to increasing the turnsâ€™ banking to 20 degrees. This was done with the intention of improving NASCAR racing at the speedway.
The new speedway configuration, however, allows an IndyCar to travel around the speed without ever slowing down. Drivers were reaching speeds of over 220 mph, just 10 mph slower than what is run in Indianapolis. The number of cars allowed to enter Sundayâ€™s race was increased to 34, creating an even greater risk. The more drivers, the greater chance for pack racing. Pack racing works great for NASCAR where drivers can â€œbeat and bangâ€ on each other with little consequence, but IndyCar is much more about precision racing, and when cars are bunched up in packs with multiple carsâ€¦well, we saw the catastrophic results Sunday.
This isnâ€™t the first time this season where IndyCar officials have made questionable calls that have risked driversâ€™ safety. In June, the series raced at New Hampshire speedway. The last 50 laps were run under caution due to rain, but officials were determined to finish the race under green flag conditions. With a moist track, officials gave the command to resume the race under green flag conditions. Drivers were screaming, begging for the race not to resume. The result was a 5-car wreck seconds after the green flag waived. Driver Will Power was very upset, being caught on TV flipping-off the race officials, and he did apologize for his actions but also stated that officials were risking the driversâ€™ lives by resuming the race.
If incidents like this continue, more drivers will consequently follow Danica Patrick, to the greener, safer pastures of NASCAR. An already struggling series cannot suffer to many more losses. We may soon be heading toward an end of the IndyCar series. The Indy 500 will still occur every year, but the current drivers would have to find full time employment elsewhere. It may actually be a better solution to IndyCarâ€™s financial problems. For the most part, people have very little car for the other 16 races on the Seriesâ€™ schedule. All eyes do focus on the â€œGreatest Spectacle in Racingâ€ however. Why not take all the purses from the other events and put all the money into the 500. Owners would sink all of their money into the Indianapolis 500, creating a field of 33 incredibly competitive cars. It would produce some of the most exciting racing the world has ever seen. All sponsorships would focus on the race, meaning more cars would enter, and more importantly more fans in the stands.
And what would the Indy 500 racers do when it isnâ€™t May? NASCAR would welcome the drivers of IRL with open arms, creating an even more competitive field of drivers, where they could race aggressively in much safer circumstances. NASCAR would be open to a whole new fan base, which could help fill the currently barren stands at the races.
Whatever the future holds, Dan Wheldon will not have died in vein. Racers are humans of a different breed, death stares these drivers in the face every time they strap themselves into the cockpit. But even with Sundayâ€™s events, every single one of those drivers will be racing again when the 2012 season begins in St. Petersburg, Florida on March 25th. It is what they love to do. It is what Dan Wheldon loved to do. Many will want to forget October 16th, 2011, everyone will remember those days in late May; 2005 and 2011, as Dan crossed the yard of bricks, Indy 500 champion. But remember that Dan died doing what he loved to do, and in reality, how many of us will get to say that when out time on earth is done.