Dan Wheldon Crash: Can Anything Be Done to Make IndyCar Racing Safer?

Eric SmithCorrespondent IIIOctober 18, 2011

Dan Wheldon Crash: Can Anything Be Done to Make IndyCar Racing Safer?

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    Unfortunately this discussion is coming up again.  I wish it wouldn't, but with the tragic loss of Dan Wheldon on the 12th lap of the Izod IndyCar Series race on Sunday, it's once again a topic.

    After any tragedy the first question that is always asked is, "Why?"

    The second and third questions following "why" include, "How did this happen?" and "How do we prevent this from happening again?"

    I created this slideshow on why the tragic wreck happened and how the Izod IndyCar Series can end the thought of drivers dying in race cars.

    You never want to see anyone lose their life.  The impact of this wreck can be detrimental to the series if officials don't make IndyCar racing safer.

    Drivers could jump ship to NASCAR, which has proved to be much safer since the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001. 

    IndyCar cannot afford to let that happen.

    Here's the steps the series needs to take.

Never Start More Than 26 Cars on an Oval Other Than Indy

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    I understand the reasoning to allow a record 34 cars to start the race on Sunday.  The series wanted to showcase the stars of the series and allow for close racing action all day.

    Another reason they did this was due to Vegas being the last race that current cars were going be used.  Teams might as well use them or lease them out because after Sunday they're no longer useful.

    The problem was that there were way too many cars on such a short track, and the series did this to accommodate the fans instead of keeping the drivers' safety in mind.

    Thirty-four cars that are all competitive and running flat out causes problems. 

    Vegas is a 1.5-mile high-banked oval.  There's not enough room for 34 cars when you factor in that they can't break away from the bunch.

    When you're traveling a football field a second, there's no margin for error.

    Drivers are aggressive, as their futures are based on how they finish.  If they lift at any point they can find themselves last in a split second or, even worse, jam up the field like what happened on Sunday in turn one that caused the melee in turn two.

    With nowhere to go, cars just run over each other and get airborne.

    Decreasing the field size would make it a bit easier to spread out. If someone does get loose, it doesn't take out 15 cars. 

    There's a little more real estate to move around in.

    I hope the series can make a limit on the field for oval tracks other than the 33 that start in Indy.  Road courses can start as many as they want due to the field spreading out so much, but high-speed ovals are too risky for more than 26 cars.

Eliminate 1.5-Mile Tracks

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    As hard as it is for me to say eliminate these tracks, I think they need to. 

    I'll be the first to admit I love the races on these tracks.  They're exciting and produce the best racing of any series.  They also produce the best finishes in any form of motorsports as well.

    That being said, that's just me being selfish. 

    I got angry when drivers complained about them.  I thought they should man up.  It was great for the series, I thought.

    What I wasn't thinking about was the effects that can happen if someone lost control.  I thought these drivers and cars were invincible.  There have been some bad wrecks before, but no one had lost a life.  Shame on me.  I should have listened to the drivers beg and plead that the worst will happen if nothing changed.

    Shame on me.

    After all, I was blinded with selfishness.  I thought the ratings and attendance would pick up at these races.  Man, was I wrong. 

    Kentucky had an all-time low attendance this year.  Kansas was dropped off the schedule due to poor attendance, as was Chicago.  Texas doesn't draw anywhere close to what NASCAR does, and the racing is a million times better.

    Why would I want them to return to these tracks when clearly ratings and attendance weren't increasing?

    I think my thoughts speak for anyone reading this and even the men and women in charge of the series: these cars just go way too fast for these tracks.

    Laps of just 20-25 seconds make it nearly impossible for cars to break away from a pack.  If they break away, it doesn't take long for them to catch up to another.

    If people struggle to drive in a pack on the highway at 60-70 mph, why on earth would we think race car drivers can drive in a pack for three hours doing speeds over 220 mph—especially while experiencing the g-force load an astronaut feels taking off in a space shuttle.

    Ever drove with your windows down between two semi's? 

    Imagine doing that in a bathtub going 220 mph without losing control or touching another car.

    We never did before 2000, so why would we think they can do it now?

    The concentration it takes not to touch the other car and hit your lines is absurd. 

    I'm a firm believer that the series needs ovals.  They bring excitement, but we need ovals over two miles in length.

    A track over two miles gives more room to spread out, and you're not going around a bull-ring.

    Those 1.5-mile tracks weren't built with IndyCars in mind.  They were built for NASCAR where drivers have to lift going into turns and have fenders where they can bounce off one another.

    They're not built for IndyCars to stay flat out and do 20-25 second laps in a pack.

    We lost touch with reality, but it came back and hit us hard on Sunday.

Make the New Car Safer

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    If the series had raced the new car scheduled for next year on Sunday, Dan Wheldon would still be here today.

    The new car's back two tires are interlocked, so if anyone touches wheels or drives into the back of someone, the car will stay grounded instead of getting airborne.

    Too bad this is coming one race too late.

    Don't blame the series officials or the old car, though.

    I know one death is too many, but if you look at the grand scope of things since 1996 when the Izod IndyCar Series was formed (formerly the IRL), only four drivers have lost their life in a car.

    That may seem like too many drivers with four in 15 years, but if you look at how many deaths happened in the old day and the innovations after each wreck, this should be the end of anyone losing their life in a car.

    Consider Scott Brayton's crash in practice for the 1996 Indianapolis 500—he hit the outside wall in turn two hard.  If he did that now with the new safety barriers, he would have walked away from that accident unscathed.

    Paul Dana's wreck in the season-opening race of the 2006 season in Miami was the result of him not knowing Ed Carpenter had spun off of turn two.  It was the morning warm-up practice session on race day so the resources weren't there like he would have had in a race with someone telling him Carpenter was there.  The result was Dana t-boned Carpenter, and it sent Dana airborne, fatally injuring the driver.

    The result from that wreck was that IndyCar installed lights and a notification system on the steering wheel of every car.  If someone spun or there was any kind of incident, the lights come on and drivers would know to slow down.

    If that happened today, Dana would have never hit Carpenter and he'd still be here as well.

    You take Dan Wheldon's wreck on Sunday.  If he was driving the new car, which he was the test driver for, he would still be here today and never got airborne.

    Tony Renna's tragic accident is the only one that I know of that couldn't have been prevented. Since it was a testing accident, there is no video footage or data released to reveal what caused the accident.  There's only speculation, so no one really knows how to fix what happened there.

    So I basically say three of the four wrecks, if they had occurred next season, wouldn't have killed the drivers.

    If you compare the same time period to NASCAR/stock cars, NASCAR/stock cars more than doubled the IndyCar Series in deaths with nine.

    If you want to take it back to even further since ChampCar was introduced in 1979, there have only been 10 driver deaths compared to 32 in NASCAR/stock car competition.

    To finish my argument that open wheel racing is still safe, only three of those deaths occurred in a race.

    The rest were practice or testing accidents.

    Jeff Krosnoff was on the bad end of touching wheels on the street course in Toronto in 1996 and got into the catch-fencing.  If that happened in the new car, he'd still be here.

    Greg Moore's tragic death in the season-ending race in Fontana in 1999 could be prevented now since the grass in the backstretch that caused him to flip end over end several times and to smash into the wall is now pavement.  If he did that now, he just would have spun and more than likely would have had enough room to save it from being fatal.

    The other death is the one we already stated, Dan Wheldon's.

    With all these innovations over the years, the cars are almost safer now than ever before.

    They just need to make sure the cars don't get airborne.

    The only way to fully ensure drivers survive going airborne would be to put a hood over them, but if they do what's the point of having IndyCar?  They'd be an open wheel version of NASCAR.

Make the New Car Harder to Drive

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    Let's face it, the old cars got so easy to drive on the high-speed tracks, it was scary.

    As stated in a previous slide, when every car is on the throttle the whole race without having to lift, there's no separation.

    That's why NASCAR has deserving winners, and pit-strategy plays a huge key.  If a car isn't handling right, the driver drops back quick.

    In IndyCar racing, everybody's car handles the same practically.  They're flat out every lap.

    Make it like it was in the old days when IndyCar racing was at its finest.  Make these cars harder to drive so that only the best can hang up with the big boys and earn wins.

    Nowadays pack racing is such a crap shoot that as long as anyone has any kind of luck, he can win.

    In the past only the teams that worked the hardest to get the cars to handle the way the driver needed would succeed.

    Let's get back to that.  If there's only 10-15 cars on the lead lap so be it, but with 20-25 cars on the lead lap running full throttle with nowhere to go is a dangerous problem.