“A horrendous accident.”
That was how Canadian Paul Tracy described the fiery 15-car catastrophe that took the life of 2005 IndyCar champion Dan Wheldon 12 laps into the IndyCar season finale at Las Vegas.
Wheldon suffered fatal injuries when his car got airborne after hitting wheel-on-wheel with Tracy. Wheldon’s No. 77 Sam Schmidt Motorsports car smashed into the fence above the wall that surrounds the 1.5-mile Vegas oval. After careening along the fence and then falling back onto the asphalt upside down, Wheldon’s car slid for several seconds before stopping.
The driver who welcomed his second son into the world a month before he became a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner last May was dead at 33.
In a sport that is a game of inches, the chain-reaction accident began when two rookie drivers — Wade Cunningham and Canadian James Hinchcliffe — touched wheels, causing the former to spin.
Wheldon’s death will likely put the spotlight on safety in motorsport in general and it may also put the IndyCar brass on the hot seat again. The size of the field in Las Vegas — 34 cars — was the largest ever in an IndyCar race outside the Indianapolis 500, which sees 33 cars take the green flag. Crammed onto a 1.5-mile banked oval that the drivers negotiated flat out, it saw the field racing in a tightly-knit pack that simply asked for trouble.
“I said before this is not a suitable track,” four-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti of the Ganassi team said after the accident. “You can't get away from anybody — one small mistake and you have a massive wreck.”
The same type of racing happens in restrictor plate events in NASCAR where the series limits engine horsepower, but the fendered wheels on stock cars usually keeps all the competitors on the ground when “The Big One” happens.
In the Las Vegas crash on Sunday, at least three cars were launched into the air.
In addition, several IndyCar drivers expressed some concerns about the 225 miles per hour (360 kilometres per hour) achieved in practice at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway that rivalled the speeds at the larger 2.5-mile Brickyard in the Indy 500. Others worried there would be no room for mistakes since the cars would be racing so closely.
The fatal crash came at the end of a season where safety has been an ongoing issue in IndyCar, beginning with the Series’ decision to adopt NASCAR-style double file restarts in 2011. Many drivers worried that side-by-side restarts would cause accidents due to wheels touching as drivers jockeyed for position.
Later in the season, a call by the IndyCar stewards to restart the race despite the objections of the drivers at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in a drizzle resulted in a five-car pile-up in August.
In September, a safety team truck driver was suspended for two races after barely reaching his post before the field whizzed by at the start of the street race in Baltimore.
While there was criticism of officials and their decisions, IndyCar also moved to enhance safety with a new car designed to increase driver protection.
As a driver without a full-time gig in 2011, Wheldon was chosen by IndyCar to help develop the new 2012 car that will replace the decade-old Dallara chassis now in use.
Wheldon returned to the cockpit in Kentucky two weeks ago for a tune-up ahead of the season finale in Las Vegas where he was racing for a possible $5-million payoff. IndyCar put the cash up for grabs in Vegas, hoping to have five non-regular drivers – especially NASCAR stars – go for the one-off prize, but none took the bait.
Instead, Wheldon was recruited and a fan chosen in a contest to split the prize with the English driver had he been able to take the victory after starting from the back of the 34-car field.
It seemed like a great opportunity for Wheldon to get things rolling for 2012 after sitting on the sidelines for most of the season.
The chance to drive in Las Vegas came after Wheldon took on a part-time commentating role on IndyCar races as he worked on his deal for 2012, doing the colour for a couple of events. Many felt his warmth and insight gave him a bright future in the broadcast booth once his racing days were over.
The fact that it will never happen may finally be the reason that pushes IndyCar drivers to establish an organized group to arise concerns with the series. As it stands now, there is no formal body that represents drivers who instead speak to officials in private and individually, rather than with a single voice.
In Formula One, the Grand Prix Drivers Association (GPDA) successfully pushed the sport to make significant changes to help improve safety since it was founded more than 50 years ago. Many of these changes came in the late 1960s and early 1970s due to the diligent work of three-time world champion Jackie Stewart.
Stewart led a boycott of the 1969 Belgian Grand Prix and played a central role in the next season’s German Grand Prix being moved to a better-equipped Hockenheim track from the Nurburgring where proper trackside barriers had yet to be installed. At every race, the GPDA raised the bar and made the sport safer.
More recently, the GPDA has been effective in voicing drivers’ concerns to the sport’s decision makers, especially following the death of F1 superstar Ayrton Senna at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.
It called for a review of safety procedures following a close call involving Ferrari’s Felipe Massa in qualifying at the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix where the driver was struck by a spring that fell off another car.
The GPDA was also instrumental in lobbying the sport to provide and pay for medical teams to attend test sessions.
Creating an IndyCar drivers association won’t help ease the pain of Wheldon’s loss, but it might help prevent another driver from suffering serious injury or death. The last driver to die in an IndyCar crash was Paul Dana who perished in the warm-up for the 2006 season opener in Miami-Homestead Speedway,
Simply put, complacency in a sport like motor racing cannot be tolerated.
“This is incredibly sad. We all know this is part of the sport. Cars are getting safer, tracks are getting safer so fortunately it hasn’t happened in a long time,” said IndyCar driver Oriol Servia of the Newman/Haas team.
“We all had a bad feeling about this place in particular just because of the high banking and how easy it was to go flat and if you give us the opportunity, we are drivers and we try to go to the front — we race each other hard because that’s what we do.”
The race was cancelled after the crash, and IndyCar has also cancelled its season-ending championship celebration that was to happen tonight. The other drivers did a slow five-lap tribute to Wheldon.