IndyCar driver Wheldon's death raises questions

BY foxsports • October 18, 2011

Dan Wheldon, one of IndyCar's biggest and most popular stars, died in a spectacular 15-car accident that racing veterans likened to something out of a movie scene or a war zone.

Now everyone - even those who never paid any attention to any form of motorsports let alone IndyCar - is demanding answers, just as they did 10 years ago when Dale Earnhardt was killed on the last lap of the Daytona 500.

The death of the seven-time champion in NASCAR's biggest race led to intense scrutiny. Now, two days after two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Wheldon died in a spectacular 15-car accident, IndyCar is facing similar questions.

It took $1 million and nearly six months of independent investigation for NASCAR to determine a combination of factors killed Earnhardt. Even after the most comprehensive look at safety in NASCAR history, it determined lots of things needed to be fixed, and that there wasn't one simple fix that could have prevented the accident.

Now, IndyCar officials must provide their own set of answers.

IndyCar chairman Randy Bernard did not kill Dan Wheldon. Fans have directed harsh words his way because Wheldon was racing Sunday for the $5 million bounty Bernard had offered him if he could win the race.

Placing blame won't help heal the grieving auto racing community or comfort Wheldon's widow and two young sons. It won't help Wheldon's brokenhearted family, led by his father, Clive, who so eloquently spoke Monday at home in England of a beloved 33-year-old who loved life and, by all accounts, never had a single enemy.

So instead of sending Bernard Twitter hate mail, fans should consider sending a positive note to Wheldon's family. Let Bernard and all of IndyCar focus instead on honoring Wheldon the best way possible - by working to make sure no one else dies.

There's a ton of issues that must be addressed going forward, and although Bernard is the first to admit he's made mistakes in his first two years with IndyCar, there's no room for error going forward.

First up is the issue of racing on ovals.

The knee-jerk reaction is to call for a ban on IndyCars racing on ovals. Five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson said as much Monday, but he wasn't talking about a flat-out ban. The concern is ovals with high banking, which Las Vegas has, and how it fits with the speeds of an IndyCar.

Faced with an identity crisis and an urgency to build some momentum, the present IndyCar model calls for racing on ovals.

''To me, the most important thing we can do, is differentiate ourselves from all other forms of motorsports,'' Bernard told The Associated Press two weeks before Wheldon's accident. ''You have to have your own niche. What we came up with is we want to be known as the fastest race car with the most versatile driver in the world. No one runs the speeds we do with the versatility - the ovals, the super ovals, the short ovals, road and street and we run in the rain. I love that.''

To continue on all ovals, though, will require some serious changes. IndyCar must break up pack racing. The only way to do that is to figure out a way that the cars can get some separation and drivers aren't forced to run wide open every lap to avoid being run over by the cars behind them.

Sunday's race was the final event for the series' current car. Wheldon spent this year as the development driver for the new car, which will debut next season with features intended to improve safety such as a wider cockpit, energy-absorbing materials underneath and behind the driver, and wide bodywork designed to prevent interlocking wheels in side-by-side racing.

But there's always room for more improvements, and driver Alex Tagliani on Twitter called on veterans Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves, Will Power, Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay ''to get together ... and push drastic changes.''

Tagliani's suggestions include: less downforce, which would decrease handling and force more braking thereby making it difficult for drivers to go wide-open in the corners; changes to the nose of the car; and side wheel protection for the oval races.

Paul Tracy and Oriol Servia, meanwhile, want improvements to the catch fencing. Earnhardt's death led to the installation of SAFER barriers at every NASCAR-sanctioned speedway, but the catchfencing has gone unchanged.

When Carl Edwards' sailed into the fence in 2009 at Talladega, the fence bowed but held and kept Edwards' car from sailing into the grandstand. The Las Vegas fence held for Wheldon, but it appeared the open cockpit took a direct hit. So although Tracy has called for plexiglass sheeting along the fences, it's unlikely that would have helped Wheldon. There also has been debate about developing a closed cockpit canopy, and that's certainly something that needs further exploration.

Former Formula One driver David Coulthard called on IndyCar to limit speeds.

''There is no need, in my opinion, to be racing at 225 mph, wheel-to-wheel, around mostly oval circuits,'' Coulthard wrote in a column in The Daily Telegraph. ''You don't need to be doing that to entertain the crowds.''

Three-time world champion Jackie Stewart questioned having 34 cars at Las Vegas, where the field had a mixed level of experience. A portion of the field was drivers with limited experience or veterans who only make a handful of starts each year.

''Will the caliber of driver be high enough to be able to control those cars at those kinds of speeds?'' Stewart asked. ''There were a good many drivers in there who were not regulars and were not full-time IndyCar drivers. I think that's a consideration that has to be looked at.''

Bernard and his officials must consider all these factors and more. No matter what safety improvements are made, one thing will never change: It always will boil down to how people choose to race each other.

''We have to take care of each other,'' Tony Kanaan said after Sunday's accident. ''We are playing with lives here.''

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