Posted on Tue, Oct. 18, 2011
last updated: October 18, 2011 12:50:56 PM
The horrifying death of IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon in a 15-car crash Sunday in Las Vegas needs to serve as a wakeup call to that racing series - its own sad version of an "Earnhardt moment."
Certainly, Wheldon was not nearly as well-known nor as accomplished as NASCAR's Dale Earnhardt, thought by many to be the best stock-car driver who ever lived. But both men died very public deaths while pursuing their sport - Earnhardt in a last-lap crash at the 2001 Daytona 500 - and both incidents occurred live on national television.
Earnhardt's death inspired numerous and effective safety upgrades in stock-car racing, and Wheldon's must do the same in the struggling sport of open-wheel racing.
Monday, I called Humpy Wheeler - the former president at Charlotte Motor Speedway for three decades and long one of racing's wisest voices. "IndyCars absolutely must become bigger, slower and safer," he said.
Wheeler had his own awful experience with the Indy Racing League while running the local superspeedway. In 1997-99, Charlotte Motor Speedway hosted an IRL race each year.
The first open-wheel race was a success. The second one had a smaller crowd and lost money. The third one, in 1999, was a catastrophe. One car lost a wheel and a second car banged into that wheel, knocking it into the grandstand.
Three fans were killed.
That was the end of open-wheel racing at the speedway in Concord. "I would have never run that series again," Wheeler said, "no matter what. Not after the deaths. I didn't want to do it to start with, but we did it. Even though I didn't like it, I still ran the race."
Las Vegas Motor Speedway is similar to the track in Charlotte - a 1.5-mile oval with high banking that is owned by Bruton Smith's Speedway Motorsports Inc. Wheeler doesn't think such tracks are a good fit for the way IndyCars currently are designed. NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson agrees, as he said Monday that IndyCars no longer should race on oval tracks.
"The raw speed is just ferocious," Wheeler said of IndyCars, which typically go about 20 to 40 mph faster than stock cars. "It is very dangerous - the speed combined with the fact the driver is not very well protected. They have made a lot of safety progress, yes. But the fact that they are open-wheel and open cockpit, you're going to run into disaster every once in a while. The safest place for those IndyCars to run is on road courses, but you can't make any money there because not enough fans come."
Wheldon, a two-time Indy 500 champion, died at age 33. He leaves behind a wife and two sons under age 3.
The driver had been writing a blog for USA Today in conjunction with the race at Las Vegas, in which he had a chance to win $5 million to split with a random race fan. Wheldon had predicted an "amazing show" in his last entry and also had complained about his car.
"I barely got over 218" mph, Wheldon wrote. "So whatever the problem is, it's significant."
What's also significant is that 218 mph wasn't considered fast enough. In hindsight, it certainly appears there were too many cars on the track (34) going too fast in too small of a space.
There are some heartbreaking pictures of Wheldon with his wife and children on the Internet. Those who knew him describe him as a funny Englishman who loved his family and was very good at what he did.
But that crash was so brutally chaotic Wheldon had no chance. Cars caught on fire. They disintegrated. They went flying through the air.
"It looked like a war scene from 'Terminator' or something," driver Ryan Briscoe would say.
It also looked like a sport in serious need of a safety overhaul, and one that needs some hard thought put into where and when those cars race again.
That's what happened when Earnhardt died, and no driver has died in NASCAR's top three series in the 10 years since. That's what must happen now in IndyCar, where Wheldon's death must shine a steady, harsh light on what went wrong and what must change.