Wheldon’s death will force changes
Dan Wheldon didn’t have the right accent. His family didn’t spend millions to put him in a car. He didn’t always get along with Danica Patrick, the series’ biggest star.
Still, Wheldon was all that was right with the IZOD IndyCar Series before he was taken away from us. Or, at least, all that should have been right about IndyCar before Wheldon became the fourth driver in the series to be killed after his car was launched into the catch fence and he suffered an "unsurvivable" head injury early in the Las Vegas Indy 300 on Sunday.
Wheldon, by way of his untimely death, can’t be overlooked now nor should we ignore the events that led to his life ending at age 33 after the 15-car accident. There will be changes. IndyCar will move on without Wheldon, without NASCAR-bound Patrick and possibly without Dario Fanchitti, who asked, "Is it worth it?" after Wheldon’s death was announced as he quietly claimed his fourth series title.
"Racing is a very dangerous sport," Alex Tagliani, Wheldon’s teammate at Sunday’s race, told FOXSports.com. "It’s a risky sport. We all know that and so do our family members, sponsors and teams. I think we are going to recover from it. It’s going to be tough to forget. In this particular situation, what I hope it does is give the driver a bigger voice when some of us have concerns about the track."
Open-wheel racing is already a niche sport and Wheldon’s death won’t be followed with an explosion of popularity like NASCAR experienced in the years after Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed at the 2001 Daytona 500. The reasons behind that rise are debatable, but there was one undeniable fact: NASCAR got serious about safety.
Neck-supporting HANS devices became mandatory and the tracks where NASCAR raced began installing impact-absorbing SAFER barriers, both innovations that were pushed into use first in open-wheel racing. NASCAR now uses the so-called Car of Tomorrow, which has several safety innovations.
IndyCar is thankfully ditching its current chassis, which was way too prone to going airborne, as shown in Sunday’s wreck. (Ironically, Wheldon was hired by the series to test its new car, which is set to debut on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., in March). Even before the Indy Racing League merged with the Champ Car World Series in 2008, the IndyCar Series increasingly started to run at comparably safer (and slower speed) road and street courses.
"The entire IndyCar family is saddened by Dan Wheldon’s tragic death, and our thoughts continue to be, first and foremost, with Dan’s wife, Susie, and his entire family at this incredibly difficult time," IndyCar said in a statement. "The safety of our drivers, their crews, IndyCar staff, racetrack staff and spectators is always our paramount concern. As part of our standard safety protocol, a full investigation has been launched by IndyCar."
The danger, especially in open-cockpit racing, will never be fully eliminated, although some questions need to be answered before the series contemplates returning to Las Vegas’ 1.5-mile oval track. Were 34 cars too many for the speedway? Was the banking too great for IndyCar racing? Did series leaders ignore drivers’ concerns?
"The thing about the track was that it was re-banked a couple years ago," racing legend Parnelli Jones said. "They were turning some very fast laps and I think that created a lot of turbulence. That can cause a lot of problems. I think the number of cars were less of an issue because this could have happened with 22 or 23 cars out there."
Former Champ Car World Series CEO Chris Pook said while it’s hard to overlook the record number of cars on the track, the bigger factor was the experience level of the drivers in those cars or lack thereof.
“On a very high-speed track, there were certainly a disproportionate number of inexperienced drivers, particularly on ovals,” Pook said. “Racecar drivers are certainly going to race. No matter what, they’re going to press the button. I think there needs to be some more thought when it comes to racing on those type of venues.
Jones said the wreck rivaled the fiery crash that claimed the lives of Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald at the 1964 Indy 500 and judging by the continued interest in this story days after the accident, it’s hard to argue.
Just a few days ago, IRL officials’ most scrutinized decision was allowing a restart at New Hampshire Motor Speedway that sent cars spinning in a non-injury crash on a wet track in August. The biggest concern moving forward before last weekend was probably how the IRL was going to fill the void as Patrick began racing full-time in NASCAR next season. Now, the series will be without the affable and talented Wheldon and a few veterans may turn inward to examine if they want to remain in the sport.
“We still don’t know what the fallout is going to be,” said Pook, who founded the series’ top street race, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. “How long is Franchitti going to continue to push himself? (Tony) Kanaan and (Helio) Castroneves as well? Those are the sorts of questions that go through the driver’s mind when they think about the decisions being made by the sanctioning body that they have zero control over. I think this would give them a lot of pause.”
The most likely candidates for retirement among full-time drivers are Kanaan, 36, Franchitti, 38, and Castroneves, 36. There are some younger drivers with both talent and name recognition in Marco Andretti, son of former series champ Michael Andretti and grandson of racing great Mario Andretti, and Graham Rahal, son of 1986 Indy 500 champ Bobby Rahal.
After that, recognizable names drop off and the female drivers that remain in the series haven’t shown the promise of Patrick yet. Wheldon was slated to replace Patrick at Andretti Autosport next season.
Wheldon had a chance to win $5 million on Sunday, an offer made to him by IRL CEO Randy Bernard. Wheldon had to start from the back of the field and win the race to claim the prize. No, the challenge wasn’t reckless. Drivers all over this country on dirt tracks, drag strips and short ovals try to do the same each weekend for far less money and much less notoriety.
Tagliani, however, said maybe the way the race was promoted and the pressure to race — possibly over safety concerns — need to be addressed.
"It was a very difficult situation," Tagliani said. "The league was working really hard to make some good promotions and I thought the week leading up to the race was a success. We were in a difficult situation to say, ‘It’s too dangerous. Let’s not race here.’ It’s difficult to see into the future. You can turn around after what happened and say, ‘Oh, (shoot)! We should never have raced and we could have avoided all this.’"
With all due respect to five-time NASCAR champ Jimmie Johnson, IndyCars should not abandon ovals. Heck, without one oval — the Indianapolis Motor Speedway — this series would likely not exist. (Even with it, the series may be breaking even or turning a small profit at best.) There are some great street courses, like the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, but to draw in an audience — especially for fringe fans who have to find Versus most of the time — ovals provide more passing and drama.
It was the kind of racing that Wheldon knew he was getting into when he came over from Britain a dozen years ago because his parents could no longer afford to put him into feeder series for Formula One. He was part of a foreign invasion that some series officials bemoaned as they would have preferred more American-born talent. He worked his way up the ranks, including a season in Indy Lights in 2001 before he ascended to the IndyCars the next year with Andretti Autosport.
Wheldon won 16 races compared to Patrick’s one. (It took some time for Wheldon to come to grips with why, despite his on-track success, Patrick was the more beloved figure.) He had two Indy 500 titles, the last in May as he took advantage of a crash on the race’s final turn by a driver from the team that fired Wheldon after last season. Sunday’s race was only Wheldon’s third of 2011, a shame since Wheldon shouldn’t have had to prematurely assume the role of a TV commentator for IndyCar broadcasts.
"You make your own path and that means knocking on doors to find sponsors so you can get in the best position possible," Tagliani said. "We had very similar paths on our way up because neither of our families had a lot of money. When you’re in the car, sometimes you don’t think about all the hard work and sacrifices those around you have made to put you there."
Now, it will be Wheldon’s family — including a wife and two young sons — who will be making the sacrifice. IndyCar racing will move on, but Wheldon’s death is another tragic loss in a sport that has never recovered from the infamous "split" 15 years ago when former Indianapolis Motor Speedway president and CEO Tony George created the Indy Racing League to rival Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART).
"It’s a big black mark," said Jones, who won the 1963 Indy 500. "You have to get all the pieces and put it back together."