Dan Wheldon's death in a fiery, 15-car crash in the IndyCar season finale at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway sent massive shock waves throughout the motorsports world. For NASCAR fans, the tragedy begs the question: What can NASCAR do to prevent a similar tragedy in stock cars?
There were several factors contributing to the dangerous conditions which caused the death of Wheldon, the 2005 IndyCar champion and two-time Indy 500 winner.
One of the obvious problems in Wheldon's death was the high speed reached by the IndyCars at the 1.5 mile Las Vegas oval. There was simply no time for drivers back in the field to react to the debacle developing on the track in front of them as cars rammed into vehicles in front of them and were launched into the wall.
After the race, driver Oriol Servia commented on the high speeds seen at Las Vegas: "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. We knew it could happen, but it's just really sad."
Thankfully, NASCAR already has an answer to the speed problem at its fastest tracks: restrictor plates. Stock cars don't reach the 222 mph seen by Vegas pole-winner Tony Kanaan, even without restrictor plates at fast tracks such as Las Vegas and Texas.
Every once in a while, someone calls for the removal of restrictor plates at Daytona and Talladega, but the last thing the safety of NASCAR needs is for speeds to escalate past the 212.809 mph record Bill Elliott set in winning the Talladega pole in 1987. To this point, cooler heads have prevailed. For the safety of competitors and the sport's fans, restrictor plates—despite the protestations of haters and detractors—should continue to be a part of NASCAR.
Another part of the problem was overaggressive driving. As four-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti said: "Within five laps, people started to do crazy stuff. I wanted no part of it. I love hard racing, but that to me is not what it's about. I said before this is not a suitable track. You can't get away from anybody. One small mistake and you have a massive wreck."
What can or should NASCAR do to police overaggressive driving in order to prevent wrecks like we witnessed on Sunday?
Much has been made of the more reckless style of driving seen recently. Veteran drivers have complained, but have said that they've become more aggressive themselves just to keep up with the more enthusiastic young guns. Even Tony Stewart has complained about the loss of etiquette on the track.
Ultimately, it's up to the drivers not to be stupid. NASCAR officials and the sport's veterans can preach to younger drivers all they want, but the final responsibility rests with those with their hands on the wheel to make smart decisions in the heat of the moment.
Another difficulty for IndyCar is the safety of the cars. Open-wheel racing is inherently more dangerous than stock car racing, since the structure of the vehicle leaves the driver's body much more exposed.
In NASCAR, significant progress has already been made in recent years to improve driver safety: the Car of Tomorrow, HANS (Head and Neck Support) restraint devices and the SAFER barriers being installed at NASCAR venues.
But the real problem in Dan Wheldon's death was a car going airborne and spinning like a top. Obviously, that's not as much an issue for NASCAR, as stock cars are more difficult to launch than the lighter and smaller IndyCars at Las Vegas.
However, it happens from time to time. Recent examples of flying Sprint Cup cars include Brad Keselowski at Atlanta and Carl Edwards and Mark Martin at Talladega. Amazingly, the safety improvements of the COT have prevented serious injuries to these NASCAR drivers.
In conclusion, many of the issues that led to Sunday's tragedy are not as much of a problem in NASCAR as they are in IndyCar. Still, we all know that tragedy can strike on the track at any time, and Dan Wheldon's death is a sobering reminder of the reality of the dangers inherent to auto racing.