When Scott Speed was asked to enter the IndyCar race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday, he declined.
IndyCar was offering a $5 million prize to Speed, and any other driver who’s not a series regular, for winning the circuit’s season finale.
But Speed, a fourth-year NASCAR veteran, simply didn’t want to take the risk.
“It’s dangerous as hell,” he said Sunday after hearing that Dan Wheldon had died during the IZOD IndyCar World Championships. “You get all those cars so equally matched a driver can’t make a difference. It’s like (NASCAR racing at) Daytona or Talladega, but a lot more dangerous."
Speed, a former Formula One racer, attempted to run the Indianapolis 500 for Dragon Racing. As a back marker in what would be equivalent to a NASCAR start-and-park team, Speed did not feel the equipment was competitive — or safe. It’s a problem he believes plagues many of the cars outside of IndyCar’s top five.
After failing to qualify for the 500, Speed was offered an opportunity to join the field but declined. He later would also say no to Sunday’s race.
“Originally, I was going to be one of the guys allowed to do it, but after Indy, the only way I’d be doing it was in a Penske car,” Speed said. “Not just a Penske car, but the best one.
“ . . . If you take the level of preparation with the premier cars in NASCAR compared to the start and parks, it’s night and day. And that same contrast happens between the top three Indy teams (Penske Racing, Target Chip Ganassi Racing, Andretti Autosport) — then there are cars that are a few steps down and the cars that are below that. The difference is dramatic.”
Wheldon, who had won his second Indy 500 in May, was offered a $5 million bonus if he could start 34th, the last spot in the field, and win Sunday’s race. Wheldon, who was to split the prize money with a fan had he won, methodically worked his way through the field and gained 10 positions. But on Lap 11, he made contact with a competitor that sent his car flying through the air and into the catch fence as part of a 15-car accident. Wheldon died from injuries sustained in the crash.
AJ Allmendinger, a fourth-year Sprint Cup driver, participated in the Champ Car Series that merged with IndyCar in 2008. He said the accident was “like watching a scene out of (the movie)‘Driven,’ just insane.”
Still, Allmendinger is a huge IndyCar fan, so much so that he announced last week he was partnering with Michael Shank Racing to operate a team in the league. But you won’t see Allmendinger racing on an oval in an IndyCar “ever,” he said.
The few times he ran on ovals in open-wheel cars, he never felt comfortable.
“There are 34 cars out there — there are way too many cars to begin with,” Allmendinger said of oval racing. “It’s not safe racing, it never has been. I never wanted to race at Texas. There’s been some big accidents there and on other ovals and they were just lucky (they) got away with it.
“There are a lot of good places they go — Baltimore, Toronto, Long Beach, those are great places. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway — that’s part of the history. I grew up loving IndyCar, the street racing and how much skill it took to drive 185 (mph) in (a) 35-mph speed zone, but driving on ovals scared the (crap) out of me. We raced CART at Vegas when it was flat, and it scared the living hell out of me. We had big wings. We were running 204, but we had fewer cars and couldn’t run side by side.”
Before banking was added at Las Vegas, the CART fields at that track included just 18 cars. For races other than the Indy 500, the field was limited to 26. But all 34 cars that entered the season finale at Las Vegas were allowed to compete Sunday.
Allmendinger called Wheldon “a great race car driver and a much better person.”
“To me, it’s just sad,” Allmendinger said. “Things like that don’t need to happen. There’s always that risk, but there’s more risk than there needs to be.
"Hopefully, we learn something from this. First, Dan needs to be remembered before everybody jumps on IndyCar, then there needs to be action. There doesn’t need to be 34 cars; it’s a ticking time bomb. Obviously, with the new car coming in, it needs to be safer, but there are tracks that they don’t need to race at.”
No doubt, Speed feels considerably safer in stock cars with roofs over the cockpits. When an IndyCar goes airborne, he said, “it’s risk versus reward — with a lot more risk.”
While Speed says the driver plays into the equation moreso at Indianapolis and certainly has more control on road courses, he believes the grip IndyCars have on ovals combined with the rate of speed is a recipe for disaster.
“At Vegas, I expected it to be more ballsy — who would take the most risks, who would make the most of it from a driving standpoint,” Speed said. “Yes, that’s intriguing, but the risks are high when the cars start to pile up at such a high rate of speed.
“If you say they don’t belong on a mile-and-a-half oval, then they don’t belong on a one-mile oval, either. When they run on a one-mile oval like Loudon, it’s equally dangerous. They’re almost going around Loudon without lifting. I think they are actually in qualifying going around that track full throttle, which is amazing, as you might imagine.
“I don’t know enough about it whether they should be racing there or not, but for me, it would take an awful lot for me to drive around there.”
Speed agrees with Allmendinger that road courses are the preferable venues for open-wheel cars. Despite the high rates of speed on the straightaways, the curves and turns slow the pace.
“The speeds are much less,” Speed said. “There’s always danger in any racing. It comes with the territory. But when you make all the cars run so close together, you’re asking for it.
“It’s one thing to be going 200 mph on certain parts of a road course but basically assuring yourself that you’d never be four wide or three wide . . . Then you take it up to 225 and tell them they have to run inches from each other, you’re asking for trouble.”
Speed adds that the aggressive nature of international drivers “breeds more excitement” but also heightens the peril.
“A lot of the drivers racing in open wheel are international and more aggressive,” Speed said. “I raced with a bunch of those guys and I would consider them fearless, balls-to-the-wall kind of guys, put those guys on an oval and you add more fuel to the fire.”
With the improvements that NASCAR has made in the past decade, count Speed among those who have competed in open wheel who feels more comfortable in an enclosed cockpit. Although he will race this weekend in Talladega and refers to the event “as a crapshoot,” he “won’t be scared to death” running side by side in a pack of cars.
“When I’m driving a car, I’m not scared for my life — necessarily,” Speed said. “Like Elliott Sadler, when he hit the wall at Pocono, or when Jeff Gordon hit the inside wall at Las Vegas, these are rare circumstances that are being addressed — where they have the walls at sort of a wrong angle that makes it dangerous for us. Other than those really weird one-off sort of problems, you’re not worried about your life.
“In an IndyCar when you’re going around at 225, inches from each other, where you know you can go airborne, you know the car can roll, and you can potentially hit the wall with your head first, you’re certainly more scared for your life in that situation.
“You’re just in more danger. You’re going faster. The cars in some senses are safer than NASCAR, but the big risk is greater. They’re smaller cars. They go faster and your head is exposed. And they get airborne. The cars get airborne and they can roll and your head can hit a wall first. It doesn’t matter if you’re going 100 mph or 200 mph. You don’t worry about that with a (stock car). A (stock car) can land on its roof, it can land on its side. You’re protected all the way around it.”