The tragic death of reigning Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon from a 15-car crash that sent his open-wheel race car airborne into the catch fence at Las Vegas Motors Speedway has cast a dark shadow on October for many motorsports fans.
Wheldon’s memorable funeral at the First Presbyterian Church in St. Petersburg, Florida was attended by approximately 1200 mourners, some of whom were IZOD IndyCar drivers, owners, officials and team members. Few can forget the sight of Wheldon’s wife Susie and his two young sons after that tragic lap. Media focus on them presently or with Wheldon via video and digital images was plentiful and sorrowful.
Yet, some in the media quickly pointed fingers at lax safety standards. Many speaking out about high speeds on oval tracks had little or no background in motorsports, but some searched for blame in earnest.
From several past articles please ponder this reporter’s analysis.
The application of all the gold on the planet and every second in a millennium couldn't produce one totally safe race car. Safety is primary, but a 100 percent safe race car is unrealistic as long as we have gravity and friction.
Recently NASCAR star Tony Stewart who has open-wheel experience commented on this same topic.
“It was a freak accident,” Stewart said. “It was something that nobody ever wants to see happen, but unfortunately it's a part of all of auto racing. It doesn't matter whether it's NASCAR or IndyCar or drag racing or motorcycle racing. It's just an aspect of our sport and everybody involved knows that and understands that and accepts it.
“Safety has come a long way in all of our sanctioning bodies across the board. But you're still not going to make it 100 percent safe all the time, and everybody is doing everything they can to keep incidents like that happening in the future. But it's never going to be 100 percent safe. You're always going to have that element of danger.”
Looking into past motorsports tragedies, just the notable deaths of race drivers killed on racetracks in a 111-year history, requires the reading of multiple pages.
According to Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia; the first motorsports fatality was Attilio Cafferatti in 1900 at Brescia. The worst motorsports accident was Pierre Levegh's 1955 fatal crash at Le Mans. That mishap was especially deadly to spectators with about 80 killed and over 100 injured.
The top five racetracks (two in the U.S. and three in Europe) with the most competitor fatalities have been the scene of a combined 182 driver deaths.
Motorsports safety used to be a lot more unscientific.
Indianapolis Speedway with the help of engineers first developed Safer Barriers, the steel and foam second wall that was adopted by NASCAR, to the benefit of many drivers involved in crashes.
The NASCAR deaths of Neil Bonnett, Kenny Irwin and Adam Petty didn’t seem to thrust the sanction into a safety mode, but the 2001 death of super star Dale Earnhardt brought about safety changes via engineers, not racing personnel, with safer formed seats, better belts and neck gear restraints.
The death of Eric Medlen in NHRA with John Force Racing in 2007 uncovered a safety deficiency that drag racing wasn’t aware of. John Force with the help of NHRA and Ford engineers created The Eric Medlen Project, an organization that developed a wider roll cage, extra padding within and a switch from five-point to seven-point belts with head-and-neck restraints that limits side-to-side movement as well as front-to back.
Side-to-side helmet vibration at 300 mph is now safer.
John Force was quick to offer condolences to the Wheldon family.
“Everyone at John Force Racing would like to send their thoughts and prayers to Dan Wheldon’s family and the entire IndyCar community,” Force said. “We understand what it means to lose a great driver. I met Dan a number of times and he was a great driver and more importantly a great man. He will be missed by the entire motorsports community.”
Some may be overlooking the history of safety in motorsports and fail to understand the strides made by engineers for sanctions. Tony Stewart agreed.
“I think they definitely miss that fact,” Tony said. “If you look back in the 50s and 60s, it wasn't uncommon -- and obviously I wasn't around, but this it isn't the first time this topic has been brought up. But it wasn't uncommon at all to read in the paper that there was a fatality at auto racing weekly back in those days."
“The sanctioning bodies, whether it's NASCAR, IndyCar or Formula 1, AMA, NHRA, they all have dedicated groups to looking to the safety aspect of it to make it as safe as possible."
“The head and neck restraints, the soft walls, the collars that the riders wear in AMA, the motocross tracks, John Force's group with the Medlen project with NHRA, there are a lot of talented and really smart people that have really dedicated a lot of money and time to making our sport and all forms of racing as safe as it can be right now.”
Dan Wheldon and Eric Medlen both died at the age of 33. It is hoped the continued projects by concerned sanctions will help many young drivers enjoy the age of 34 and well beyond.
FYI WIRZ is the select presentation of topics by Dwight Drum at Racetake.com.
Unless otherwise noted, quotes and information were obtained from official release materials provided by NASCAR and team representatives.
Photo credit: Dwight Drum at Racetake.com