A lot of the fun went out of racing Sunday afternoon when there was a NASCAR-style "big one" in the IndyCar race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. It happened in a heartbeat and was over almost as fast.
The sport lost English driver Dan Wheldon in that crash. He died of massive head injuries.
A NASCAR pileup can be fun to watch because it’s like bumper cars at the Ex. This is because the death of Dale Earnhardt at Daytona 10 years ago forced NASCAR to take a hard look at the design of its cars. The "Car of Tomorrow" that they race now is so much safer. It’s almost guaranteed that a driver will walk away from a trip into a wall at 180 miles an hour.
Will Wheldon’s accident prove to be IndyCar’s wakeup call?
Before too many people start pointing fingers, and despite IndyCar’s somewhat poor officiating record this season, there is no way anyone can be directly blamed for what happened Sunday. Nobody could have seen that coming.
The drivers are saying after the fact that they had warned series officials that there could be a problem. But nobody said anything in public – so far as I know – and they got into their cars Sunday and went out there to race just like they always do.
In fact, Wheldon was bubbling with enthusiasm while talking from his cockpit during the warmup laps with ABC announcer Scott Goodyear. Wheldon was the network’s “in-race reporter” and told Goodyear how he was looking forward to trying to win a $5 million bonus he’d be paid if he won the race from his last-place starting position.
And, in fact, he’d used his Twitter account when the race started to illustrate his excitement at going racing. His Tweet?
Having said that, it quickly became apparent that the cars were going way too fast for the size of the Las Vegas facility. Within a lap or two, the cars were three-wide and sometimes four-wide down the straights. It might be okay to go 220 miles an hour at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway but those speeds were over the top on a 1.5-mile oval.
Canadian racer James Hinchcliffe came right to the point: "There is zero margin for error."
NASCAR uses restrictor plates to slow down the cars on super-fast speedways. So, should IndyCar consider something similar to slow down the cars at some venues?
Or, with the exception of Indianapolis or other 2.5-mile speedways like Michigan or California, should IndyCar leave the ovals behind and just race on street circuits or road courses where “pack racing” at 220 mph isn’t possible?
Open-cockpit racing is extremely dangerous. Former double world champion John Surtees (F1 and motorcycles) lost his son Henry when the teen was hit on the helmet by a wheel that came off his car in a crash. Jeff Krosnoff was killed at the 1996 Molson Indy when his car went cockpit-first into a light pole. Greg Moore lost his life in a CART race at California in 1999 when he, too, went head-first into a wall. (Greg’s dad, Ric Moore, was at the Vegas race Sunday and consoled Dario Franchitti, his son’s great friend.)
There are open-wheel series that have roll cages protecting the cockpits – midgets, sprint cars and super-modifieds. Might a roll cage have helped Wheldon? Should IndyCar consider something similar?
Wheldon was racing for a $5 million bonus. Should that sort of bonus, or bounty, ever be offered again?
There were so many cars out there – 34, the biggest field of the year and more cars than start the Indy 500 – that the track was very crowded and some of the drivers were not sufficiently experienced to be driving that fast on that type of banked speedway.
Should IndyCar take a look at its driver licencing system? Even on a race-by-race basis? And how about capping the number of cars that can start? That could vary from track-to-track also.
Wheldon was testing the 2012 car that will replace the current chassis next season. It has fenders over the rear wheels that some say might have prevented Wheldon’s car from “taking off.” But the exposed front wheels were actually what caused Wheldon’s car to ride up over the spinning car in front of him.
Should the front wheels of Indy cars have fenders too?
So many questions – and perhaps there will never be any answers.
But when it comes to racing, there should never be anything that smacks of complacency. A horrible thing happened on Sunday: a husband was killed, as was a son and a father.
We – and by "we," I mean everybody involved in the sport – has to do something other than pray that it will never happen again.