(by Bruce Martin si.com 10-19-11)
What happened at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Sunday's IndyCar World Championships could best be described as a perfect storm of calamity.
There were so many factors at play that resulted in the 15-car crash that killed reigning Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon. Sadly, nearly every driver in the IndyCar Series feared and predicted that a calamity would happen in this race for a variety of reasons.
"The track is so smooth we will be three-wide out there," Danica Patrick projected last Thursday after she was the fastest in practice. "The race will be crazy and the crashes spectacular."
During the two-hour red-flag period Sunday, when the race was stopped followed the Lap 11 crash, I had a chance to talk to Patrick in her pit area.
"Remember me saying that on Thursday?" she asked. "I guess it was prophetic. We all feared there would be a major crash at this race because this track has so much grip and was so easy to drive that it would create a pack. This certainly isn't how I want to end my IndyCar career."
At the time she made those comments, no one knew for sure that Wheldon, the popular driver from Emberton, England, who won his second Indianapolis 500 on May 29, was dead. But the reports from drivers who had been in the infield care center began to circulate around pit lane that Wheldon did not make it. Of course, without an official announcement everything was rumored and drivers such as Patrick, Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan and others hoped and prayed for the best.
That the 19 drivers remaining in competition were called into a special meeting was an indication this race would not continue. A much lesser story than Wheldon's death was the massive damage done to the racecourse. There were huge gashes, ruts and divots in the asphalt from the cars that went airborne and landed upside down. A large portion of the catchfence was destroyed as well as the SAFER Barrier -- the Steel And Foam Energy Resistant wall that absorbs much of the impact of a crash. Developed by the University of Nebraska in conjunction with the IndyCar Series in the late 1990s, it was first installed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2001.
Today, the SAFER Barrier is required at all major racing facilities and it more than did its job in Sunday's crash because many more of the 15 drivers in that crash could have experienced more significant injuries.
But even with SAFER Barriers, Head and Neck Support (HANS) Devices and other major advancements in the sport, it is clear that auto racing is risky business. There is always an element of danger when drivers go into competition. They assume the risks when they strap themselves into the cockpits, and Wheldon fully understood those risks throughout his glorious career, which included Indy 500 victories in 2005 and 2011. He won 16 IndyCar races, including a then-record six in 2005 -- the year he won the series championship.
Wheldon's death was the first in the series since inexperienced driver Paul Dana was killed in a crash during a warmup session before the 2006 season opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Ironically, Wheldon was the winner of the race held later that day.
After Sunday's massive spectacle of a crash, it became clear to IndyCar Series officials that it was pointless in continuing the event. One of the drivers involved in the crash that went airborne was Team Penske driver Will Power, who entered the race 18 points behind Franchitti in the battle for the championship. With Power out of competition, Franchitti clinched the title, although his fourth IndyCar crown comes with no celebration.
Power was vocal in his criticism of the formula of race cars competing at the wide, smooth, high-banked, 1.544-mile oval.
"A lap around this place is so brainlessly easy flat, but starting that far back in the pack (Wheldon started last out of 34 cars) it is not brainlessly easy," Power said after Friday's qualifications.
In simple terms, the recipe for this perfect storm included the following:
• The current IndyCar chassis has low aerodynamic drag and high downforce, which gives the cars tremendous grip, allowing all of the 34 cars in the race to run close to the same speeds.
• Because the cars could run relatively the same speed, there was no chance to separate the field between the good cars and the bad cars. That allowed the drivers with relative inexperience on the ovals at the back of the grid to run similar speeds to the fast cars at the front, creating a giant 34-car pack similar to what happens at NASCAR's restrictor-plate race tracks at Daytona and Talladega.
• Pack racing in IndyCar is extremely thrilling but tremendously hazardous because these cars were racing at speeds exceeding 220 mph. NASCAR cars typically run 180 mph.
• The 34-car lineup made it the largest field in IndyCar history since the 1997 Indianapolis 500. Several of those cars, however, never made it to the green flag at Indy that year because some of them had engine failures on the parade lap, and the three cars that made up Row 7 all crashed on the pace lap. The normal starting lineup for an IndyCar race on an oval has ranged between 26 to 28 cars recently.
• Although 33 cars start the Indianapolis 500 every year (with the exception of 1997 and other years because of extenuating circumstances), the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a 2.5-mile, flat, four-cornered oval. That puts a premium on a race car's chassis setup, so cars that have hit the right setup are able to drive away from the other cars, creating separation. That is why many of the crashes in the Indianapolis 500 are often single-car incidents, because the drivers have time to react and avoid the incident. That was not the case at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. By having 34 cars racing on a 1.544-mile oval at the speeds they were traveling, it eliminated any reasonable reaction time for a crash in traffic.
• Wheldon was part of a $5 Million Challenge. If he could win the race starting last in the 34-car field he would split $5 million with a fan. Wheldon's mission was to drive through the field and pick off as many cars as he could early in order to settle in with the more competitive cars at the front. Wheldon had already improved 10 positions in the first 10 laps of the race.
• When Sebastian Saavedra's car had a momentary slip in front of James Hinchcliffe, Wade Cunningham's car hit the back of Hinchcliffe's, momentarily causing Cunningham to get off the throttle. By slowing just enough, the car behind Cunningham, driven by rookie J.R. Hildebrand, ran into the back of Cunningham's rear tires. That sent Hildebrand flying into the air.
• With the other cars so closely bunched, it triggered the massive chain-reaction crash. Charlie Kimball, E.J. Viso and Vitor Meira crashed in reaction to Hildebrand's incident. Wheldon's car ran over the back of Kimball's wheel, sending Wheldon on his fatal upside-down flight.
The IndyCar Series came to Las Vegas hoping to move the needle of fan interest. After having the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway for several years in front of small crowds, series officials hoped a change in venue to the Entertainment Capital of the World would put the spotlight on IndyCar. A nearly weeklong schedule of events, which included running all 34 IndyCars up "The Strip" during a parade Thursday night, was highly successful, and people in this town were actually talking about IndyCar.
IndyCar wanted to become front-page news again. It accomplished that goal but for all the wrong, grim, grisly reasons.
The headlines didn't hail Franchitti as the greatest IndyCar Series driver of his era as he claimed his fourth series championship and third in a row. Instead, the headlines told the awful tale that the popular and talented Wheldon was dead, killed in one of the most horrific crashes in the modern era of IndyCar -- a form of racing that dates to the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911.
The 33-year-old Wheldon became the fourth Indianapolis 500 winning driver to die the same season he won the world's biggest race. Gaston Chevrolet won the Indianapolis 500 in 1920 and was killed in a race at Beverly Hills, Calif. In 1929, Ray Keech won the race and was killed the next month at Altoona, Pa. In 1946, George Robson won the Indianapolis 500 and was killed later that year in a race at Atlanta.
Wheldon's death is the seventh to happen in this form of racing since 1996. Scott Brayton was killed in practice for the 1996 Indianapolis 500 after he won the pole one week earlier. Jeff Krosnoff was killed in a CART race at Toronto in July 1996. Gonsolo Rodriguez was killed in a CART practice at Laguna-Seca in 1999, and Greg Moore was killed in the CART race at Fontana, Calif., two months later. Tony Renna was killed in a tire test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2003, and, most recently, Dana's death in 2006.
Once the race was canceled, the 19 drivers left in the race paid tribute to Wheldon by running five laps in rows of three around the track as "Amazing Grace" and "Danny Boy" were played over the loudspeakers in an emotional send-off.
When the IndyCar Series World Championships were announced in February, INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard had offered a $5 Million challenge that no drivers from another series could beat IndyCar's best. He hoped that bet would lure such NASCAR stars as five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon. It was a bet none of those drivers chose to take.
"Their average was 225 [mph]? I've never been 225 mph in my life -- and that's their average around an oval," Johnson said Monday. "They are brave men and women that drive those things.
"Knowing Dan and his wife and two kids, and then I'm sitting there with my daughter running around in the backyard, I was torn up yesterday. I mean, I know Dan ... or knew Dan. We just stared at the TV for a long time yesterday with long faces. Just really sad."
Johnson contended IndyCar should not compete on ovals, although the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is actually an oval, and that is the centerpiece of the sport.
"There's just no need to," Johnson said. "Those cars are fantastic for street circuits, for road courses. The ovals at those speeds ... there's very little crumple zone around the driver. It's an open cockpit, and then you add open wheels -- it's just creating situations to get the car off the ground at a high rate of speed. And you can't control the car when it's off the ground.
"I hate, hate, hate that this tragedy took place. But hopefully they can learn from it and make those cars safer on ovals somehow. I don't know how they can really do it. Myself, I have a lot of friends that race in that series, and I'd just rather see them on street circuits and road courses -- no more ovals."
Johnson was involved in a massive impact when he crashed late in Saturday night's race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Johnson was uninjured in the crash but knows that there remains plenty of danger in NASCAR but not to the degree as IndyCar.
"We know what the risks are [in NASCAR], and the risk factor to driving an open-wheel car is multiplied by 10," Johnson said. "Yes, that threat exists. But I feel like NASCAR has worked hard to keep speeds down. We have devices on the vehicles to keep them on the ground. We don't have those types of crashes.
"I'm not saying the perfect storm couldn't take place, and we couldn't get a couple off the ground. ... But I just don't see our cars having the same issue. I don't see the chance [being] anywhere in the ballpark as those open-wheel cars."
The IndyCar Series will move forward because it always has. Unfortunately, death has been an unwelcome companion to auto racing since the sport began. But here are some necessary changes that need to be made to prevent another perfect storm of calamity.
• Sunday's race was the final time the current IndyCar Dallara chassis and normally aspirated engine was used. This was the same chassis used since 2003 and will be replaced by a newer Dallara chassis that has added safety features, including partial covers to the rear and front of the rear wheels with extended bodywork. Ironically, the test driver for the new 2012 car was Wheldon, whose legacy may partially be that he played a key role in the on-track testing of these cars. The engines will also be turbocharged, which means the speeds can be adjusted downward or upward with the use of a pop-off valve. If the speeds are too high, the pop-off valve can be adjusted to blow at a much lower rate of pressure.
• If IndyCar does return to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the field should be capped at 24 to 26 cars. Starting 34 around a track this size proved to be downright insane. It was trying to combine the variable of traffic at a short oval with the high-speed thrill of a high-banked track. That proved to be a fatal combination.
• Make the cars harder to drive. By doing that, it puts more skill back into the driver's hands, allowing the best in the series to actually drive the race cars. That means increase the aerodynamic drag and make the cars actually have to slow down to make the turns. After all, getting on the throttle, shifting gears and hitting the brake are more a part of racing than simply holding the accelerator flat to the floor and turning left.
• While it is essential to bring new drivers into the sport, some of the inexperienced drivers in the back of the field should have been scrutinized further. Perhaps have more rookie tests and actually make those tests harder to pass. Having said that, every driver in any series has to have the opportunity to make their first start. Adding eight drivers to the Las Vegas lineup didn't really bring anything positive to the show, although many drivers admit the same catastrophe could have happened with a 24-car field.
The IndyCar Series was supposed to stage its annual championship celebration where Franchitti would be honored as the series champion, and James Hinchcliffe as the Rookie of the Year. But that was canceled as the thoughts turned to remembering Wheldon not only as a great IndyCar driver but also a tremendous person.
But once the grieving is complete, the hard work begins for the IndyCar Series, and that is making sure it steers clear of the next perfect storm.