Recipe For Disaster

Posted: October 18, 2011 by Kodi in Other

A picture is worth a thousand words. . .

If you haven’t heard by now you must not pick up any newspapers, watch any television or walk around in public because the IndyCar crash that took place on Sunday has been plastered all over the media. I never thought that I would spend any of my time looking into the world of Indy car racing but a tragic event that took place on Sunday has drawn me in. I wanted to compile together who Dan Wheldon was, what went wrong in Nevada and why. Is racing an IndyCar at 200+ MPH on a track like this safe?

Throughout all the information I went through researching Dan Wheldon I found a plethora of information about what a great guy he was. He was a fun, outgoing, charismatic figurehead of a sport that has been slowly losing popularity. It wasn’t his fault as the 33 year old professional race car driver chose to stay with IndyCar rather than revamping his career on another tour.

Dan Wheldon is a two time Indy 500 winner an achievement just 18 other professional drivers have accomplished. His first Indy 500 win was overshadowed by a young rookie driver who finished 4th in their first race, it just so happened to be Danica Patrick. Wheldon won the Indy 500 again this year and before entering the field in Las Vegas he had driven in just one other race.

He entered the field at Vegas because he had a chance to win $5 million bonus due to a league promotion. The promotion said that any driver who didn’t compete full-time in the series during the year that won a race would take home the cash but there was a catch. You had to start from the back of the pack and Wheldon was a great driver who had a chance to take home the big bonus, although no driver in history had ever started from the back and won the race. Randy Bernard the CEO of IndyCar offered the $5 million and also decided that he would give $2.5 million to a fan. Ultimately this was just another ploy for Bernard and IndyCar to get some interest in their sport, they have had a lot of coverage but not the type they were looking for.

Before the race Wheldon told reporters that “I do think we have an opportunity to win this event. It could be one hell of a story line”. Wheldon did end up being the main story across the world of sports but it wasn’t because he accomplished this epic feat. He went on to say that “the way the racetrack is laid out and the way I race on ovals, we have the ability to win this event”.  Wheldon came to the United States in 1999 by way of Emberton, England and has won 16 times, made the podium 43 times and won the pole 5 times during his IndyCar career and was a tremendously talented driver who was well liked by his competitors.

This wouldn’t have been Wheldon’s first come from behind victory, since he never found a permanent contract after his agreement with Panther Racing ended after the 2010 season. Wheldon won the Indy 500 this year while racing for his former teammate and Andretti’s Green Racing. In a twist of fate Wheldon won when Panther’s driver J.R. Hildebrand crashed on the final turn.

He filled the rest of his time testing the new Indy series car and acting as a fill-in color man for Versus broadcasts of IndyCar. The last known interview ended with Wheldon explaining his perspective on the choices he’s made in his racing career. “What I’ve done has re-energized my career. It made me appreciate racing a whole lot more” it’s unbelievable how obsolete a statement like this would have been if it wasn’t for Sunday’s accident.

Sadly, Dan Wheldon’s car wrecked just 11 laps into the IndyCar series race at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He sustained massive trauma to the head and was pronounced dead after being airlifted to the hospital. He was part of a 15 car crash but was the only fatality after his car went airborne and the 33 year old driver was thrown into the wall of the track. His car burst in flames but Wheldon’s death likely occurred when his car made contact with the wall because the Indy cars are cockpits are open.

This means that there is no roll bar or safety structure between a driver’s helmet and the air above so Wheldon likely had no chance after making contact with the barrier. Wheldon’s death is the first since 2006 when rookie IndyCar driver Paul Dana was killed during practice on the morning of race day at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

There has been a lot of scrutiny by Indy drivers to the likes of Dario Franchitti who said the track was not suitable that there was “nowhere to get away from anybody”. He went on to explain that “[drivers] are just stuck there and people get frustrated and go four wide, and you saw what happened. One small mistake from everybody and it’s a massive thing”. Wheldon however wrote on a blog that “It’s going to be a pack race, and you never know how that’s going tp turn out” saying “it will be pure entertainment”.

It took just a few hours for the rest of the drivers to find out about Wheldon’s passing and IndyCar decided to call the race. The drivers however decided to give a salute to Wheldon and rode around the track 5 times. It’s amazing the dramatic difference in a person’s path because Wheldon was not the only driver to go airborne. Will Power’s did too but he escaped with a sore back while Doctors at the University Medical Center were forced to inform Wheldon’s wife and family about Dan’s passing.

Paul Tracy however has to live with watching Wheldon’s car fly “over the top of me” and live with what he called “a horrendous accident”. Danica Patrick said that “it was like a movie when they’re trying to make it as gnarly as possible”. While Ryan Briscoe spoke about the event explaining he’d “never seen anything like it, the debris we all had to drive through the lap later, it looked like a war scene from ‘Terminator’ or something. I mean, there were just pieces of metal and car on fire in the middle of the track with no car attached to it and just debris everywhere” he took a moment then revealed that it was “so scary”.

So what exactly went wrong? Some people think it’s the small track, the high walls, the steep track, the amount of drivers, but after looking into it I believe that Wheldon hitting the open tire of a car in front of him was the deadly mistake. It shot his car into the air because of a force similar to a jug ball machine, a spinning tire that made contact with Wheldon’s and shot him in the air. Terry Blount a senior motor sports writer said that “if you touch wheels, you’re more than likely going to have an accident”. Wheldon didn’t seem to slow down as quickly as the car in front of him, driven by Paul Tracy, which was a fatal mistake.

The field at tracks similar to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway usually ranges from 20-25, but on Sunday the race had 34 cars in the race. It was the final race of the year for Indy and was the first time that they had raced at the Las Vegas track since 2000. The track had undergone extensive reconfigurations since then including resurfacing.

Some believe that for IndyCar to race at tracks like Las Vegas they need to make changes in the cars to slow them down and make them safer. There are others who also believe that they need to limit the number of young drivers who have less experience and ensure that there is a limit of those types of drivers to guarantee the packs safety if another event like this occurs.

There have been multiple races at a plethora of different venues, some long, other shorts, with or without high barriers, concrete or asphalt, there is a vast array of characteristics that makes each track unique. There are people who argue that IndyCar should only be ran on street tracks but realistically this is a dying breed of racing that has been around for a long time. They need to “excite” the crowd and create fans by racing at these fast small ovals in hopes of creating a following. They don’t need less speed because that is what captivates a crowd, but it is also what makes the sport so dangerous.

There was a bad feeling about the track in Las Vegas because of the straightaways, steep banking and the ability to keep your speed up. The track is a shorter one that was built more for NASCAR than IndyCar Racing but it was the culmination of multiple factors, a perfect storm that made this event the horrendous spectacle it became.

It is heartbreaking for the family and friends of Wheldon, especially his wife and two young sons but we have only received a statement from Dan’s father. Clive Wheldon spoke on behalf of his family and called Dan “a true champion and gentleman on and off the track”. Clive went on to say that the family “would like to thank everyone for their overwhelming outpouring of sympathy”.

My heart goes out to the family and friends of Dan Wheldon and all of the fans of IndyCar. Wheldon was working on a safer version of the IndyCar which will be introduced during the 2012 season. Wheldon was already a huge influence, test-driving those models, but now he will be a larger influence than anyone ever expected. The safety features included covering the rear tires to prevent a devastating event like the 15 car pile-up in Las Vegas.

Rookie driver James Hinchcliffe understands that officials know the risks involved in racing at a track similar to the one Wheldon died on. “At the end of the day, the series isn’t stupid, they’ve been around racing a long time. If one small thing goes wrong, it has very bad consequences” Hinchcliffe said, but Sunday’s events weren’t small, so what will be the consequences.

Other than the safety precautions that have been made in the 2012 prototype the most important change that needs to take place is a change in the driver cockpit. Rather than having an open cockpit the engineers at IndyCar need to find a way to enclose/stabilize the cockpit. The likely scenario is to create a pod similar to those found on fighter jets because IndyCar doesn’t want to end up looking like a Formula 1 car but they need to do something to protect these drivers.

The real question is why? Why do we even have motorsports? There are questions about emissions and the use of natural resources that we are already fighting wars over but there is a following for this type of sport. There has been deaths in a variety of motor sports but is it worth it? Should we be going to air shows and watching airplanes accomplish acrobatic moves in the sky? We all heard about the air show disaster just a few months ago and now this situation has arose. Is the risk of death the reason why we are so interested in these sports? Why not save the fuel and just go back to the Coliseum days of humans versus vicious wild animals? I feel terribly for the Wheldon family and hope that his death has a positive impact on the sport he loved and the fans that follow IndyCar and all other motorsports.

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