Dan Wheldon Dead After IndyCar Crash: Were Conditions At Las Vegas Motor Speedway A Factor?
Grief was the most pervasive emotion at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the bleary-eyed aftermath of driver Dan Wheldon's death. But it wasn't the only one.
As the wreckage from a fiery, 15-car wreck smoldered, Wheldon had been airlifted to a local hospital. The massive crash that included nearly half the vehicles in the field occurred during the 11th lap of the IZOD IndyCar World Championships -- the last race on the IndyCar calendar for 2011. A short time after the conflagration engulfed the second turn, IndyCar CEO Randy Bernad informed Wheldon's peers, and then the media, that the 33-year-old two-time Indy 500 winner from England had suffered "unsurvivable injuries." The remainder of the race was called off out of respect to the day's tragedy, but the drivers opted to get back into their cars and drive a five-lap salute around the 1.5-mile oval to honor Wheldon.
With eyes mostly obscured by dark sunglasses, the shocked drivers, including Danica Patrick and Tony Kanaan, dutifully spoke with the media. Aside from Wheldon's death being a harsh reminder of the danger looking behind every curve for professional race car drivers, the crash in Vegas left anger and frustration mingling with sadness.
"I'm angry. I'm sad. So many things. I feel like everything was wrong. I don't know," fellow IndyCar driver Alex Tagliani said after Wheldon's death.
Among the things that may have been wrong on Sunday are the size of the field and the shape and nature of the course. When the green flag was waved to start this race there were 34 cars in the field, the highest total all year for IndyCar and the highest total for an event away from Indianapolis in the history of the series.
At just 1.5 miles, the course is a mile shorter than the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where Wheldon earned his two most famous victories in 2005 and 2011. While the shorter distance of the course packs the cars tighter from from front to back, the width of the Las Vegas oval allows for drivers to run three or four across into the banked curves. The combination had many drivers expecting tight, frenetic conditions.
Compounding the spacing issues was the course's well-earned reputation for running fast. Driving the No. 7, Patrick posted the fastest practice time with a staggering 224.719 mph on Oct. 13. After learning her time, Patrick's reaction proved prophetic.
"It's friggin' fast here," said Patrick. "Almost a 225 lap is like Indy speeds. The track is nice and smooth and we’ll be three-wide out there, which will be exciting. The race is going to be crazy and the crashes will be spectacular."
Patrick was not the only driver talking up the danger of the course in the days before the race.
"It's so fast and you're so close to each other, it's exciting," Davey Hamilton told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, also noting that he expected four wide racing. "There's really no room for error."
With vehicles traveling at speeds upward of 220 mph and drivers operating in close proximity to one another, there was little time for Wheldon to react when the crash began in a pack running just ahead of him. Citing the lack of time for driver reaction associated with open-wheel racing at ovals like the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson called on IndyCar to stick to road courses.
"I wouldn't run them on ovals. There's just no need to," said Johnson on Monday while at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "Those cars are fantastic for street circuits, for road courses. I hate, hate, hate that this tragedy took place. But hopefully they can learn from it and make those cars safer on ovals somehow."
That conditions anticipated by Patrick and Hamilton days before the race ultimately cost Wheldon his life is the source of the anger and frustration that mingles with the sorrow felt by drivers like Tagliani and Oriol Servia.
"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," said Servia. "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," he said. "We knew it could happen, but it's just really sad."
If a consensus develops amongst the drivers that Wheldon's death could have been prevented by IndyCar, then perhaps this tragic crash will lead to sweeping changes in the open-car circuit just as NASCAR revamped its safety protocols following the death of Dale Earnhardt at the Daytona 500 in 2001.
In recent months, Wheldon had actually been assisting those looking to improve the safety of the vehicles used on the IndyCar circuit. In September, Wheldon test drove the new Dallara chassis that will become a fixture of IndyCar in 2012.
Of course, there may not be any technological improvement that could have safeguarded against the overcrowding of the course. If the field had been trimmed down to a more manageable 28-30 cars, then Wheldon likely would have not even been on the track on Sunday. He was only entered in the race as part of a promotional gimmick arranged by IndyCar and Go Daddy.com in which the driver would start from the rear of the field with $5 million on the line if he could win. The purse would be split between Wheldon and a contest winner. To help promote the race and his part in it, Wheldon authored two blog posts for USA Today. Wheldon closed out his first blog post by writing, "I guarantee you won't be bored. And someone might even get rich."
Looking at the circumstances of Wheldon's death, it seems possible that the desire of IndyCar to produce an exciting, marketable finale to its 2011 season may have blinded it to the jeopardy facing the men and women racing. This suspicion has the drivers questioning why they lost a friend on Sunday. If so many of the drivers had a bad feeling about the course and the size of the field then shouldn't someone at IndyCar?