Sadly, we were reminded once again last Sunday that no matter how safe we try to make racing, it is still a dangerous and sometimes deadly sport.
The death of Dan Wheldon at Las Vegas Motor Speedway has saddened racers and fans everywhere. Wheldon had won his second Indy 500 this year and was the test driver for the new Indycar chassis. He was slated to take over Danica Patrick's Go Daddy car for Andretti Autosport in 2012, and was racing for a
$5 million bonus in Sunday's race. In what I feel was the right decision, IndyCar stopped the race and put on a five-lap tribute to Wheldon by those drivers whose cars had not been damaged in the 15-car wreck that took his life.
Looking back over my 40 plus years of involvement in racing, I have too often seen drivers lose their lives. It was much more common back in the '60s and '70s, but as car design, helmets, crash barriers, and other safety improvements were made, we became somewhat lulled into a false sense of security. Sunday's accident is a sobering reminder that racers are putting their lives on the line whenever they strap into a car and buckle on a helmet.
One of the first columns I wrote for the Appeal in July 1996 included commentary on the death of Indy Car driver Jeff Krosnoff at Toronto, along with a volunteer marshal who was hit by Krosnoff's car. During the years I've had to write about such subjects all too often, and have even had to deal with fatalities as a PA announcer at race tracks. Although racing has been an essential element of my life for a very long time, I really hate that part of it.
Several drivers expressed concern before the race about the speeds and the tight packs, and after the accident a number were even more vocal about the dangers. And the TV commentators, particularly former drivers Scott Goodyear and Eddie Cheever, emphasized that there was nothing a driver could do in a crash situation, because things happened too fast to react.
Indy racing writer/broadcaster/gadfly Robin Miller opined that the 2.5 mile banked ovals that are designed for NASCAR racing aren't suitable for Indy cars that are 40 to 50 miles an hour faster, and that something must be done before next season to avoid accidents similar to today's. Some are calling for the series to abandon all oval racing except for the Indy 500. The problem with Indycars on ovals is the same as with NASCAR's restrictor plate tracks.
Because the current Indy cars are underpowered, they can run flat out all the way around, and because they are spec cars and so equal they cluster in a big pack, inviting the inevitable disaster. With a new chassis and new engines due next year, perhaps increased horsepower and reduced downforce can be incorporated to put control back in the drivers' hands. Another solution might be something like the Handford device used by the Champ Car series a number of years ago.
For those of you who don't remember, the Handford Device was an aerodynamic tweak to the rear wing that induced drag and turbulence, slowed the cars down on ovals, and made passing possible. The team developing the new chassis and aero package for next season needs to make it a priority to address the issue with something similar. Otherwise, we stand to lose more drivers.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship is at the halfway point with Talladega this weekend. We may see some modification to the two-car drafting scenario that has been prevalent at the restrictor plate tracks in recent races. This is due to a couple of rule changes. NASCAR has opened up the plate by 1/64" for this race, providing an extra 7-10 horsepower. But they also reduced the cooling system pressure by about 8 pounds per square inch, which means the cars can't run closely in tandem as long without overheating. I just wonder if this will cause a return to the pack racing of previous years, with the danger of the "big one" that is inherent in that situation.