Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Dan Wheldon's death raises questions for IndyCar circuit

(by Nate Ryan usatoday.com 10-18-11)

A record number of cars racing inches apart in huge packs at breathtaking speeds above 220 mph. A $5 million "bounty" for a victory by a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner starting at the rear of a congested track. A heavily contested season championship on the line and a transcendent superstar driving her last IndyCar race before joining the NASCAR circuit.

Sunday's Izod IndyCar World Championships at Las Vegas Motor Speedway had all of the elements of a captivating show by a racing series that is starved for attention.

Now, the national spotlight is on IndyCar racing but for the wrong reasons. Dan Wheldon, 33, died of blunt head trauma in a fiery, 15-car crash early in Sunday's race, shocking the motor sports community and raising a range of questions among drivers, sponsors and fans about how the sport is run and its future.

Perhaps none is more prominent than this: In its efforts to emerge from the shadow of the popular NASCAR circuit, is the nation's fastest racing series stretching the limits of safety and putting its stars — the drivers — in untenable conditions?

Many drivers think so. They said as much before and after the death of Wheldon, who crashed at a banked, oval track where speeds are the greatest because drivers do not have to slow down for sharp turns, as they do at other IndyCar tracks.

Dario Franchitti, the reigning three-time series champion and a former teammate of Wheldon, expressed concern immediately after the wreck Sunday as emergency crews tended to injured drivers.

"You know I love hard racing, but that to me is not really what it's all about," he said. "I said before we even tested here that this was not a suitable track for us, and we've seen it today."

Monday, after the grim news had settled, drivers from other circuits shared similar sentiments.

"Those cars are going so fast and get airborne frequently, I wouldn't run them on ovals," said five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who had resisted the overtures of IndyCar officials to enter the Las Vegas race. "You're just creating situations to get the car off the ground at a high rate of speed. I'd rather see them on street circuits and road courses (and) no more ovals."

Former Formula One and CART driver Mark Blundell tweeted: "I tend to agree with NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson that indycar should focus on road and street tracks."

The death of Wheldon, who was eligible for the $5 million prize if he had won Sunday, is the latest blow to IndyCar, a circuit that mostly has been reeling since 1996, when infighting between team owners and Indianapolis Motor Speedway's president split it into rival series that confused fans.

By the time the sport reunified three years ago, it lagged far behind NASCAR in attendance, sponsorship cash and TV ratings. CEO Randy Bernard was hired nearly two years ago from the Professional Bull Riders, where he earned a reputation as a bombastic promoter by merging bucking Brahmas with shimmering pyrotechnics.

He brought the same flair to IndyCar, toying with the rules this season to try to increase action by, among other things, having cars start races beside each other more frequently.

The season finale was intended as an attention-drawing masterstroke for IndyCar.

A glitzy parade down the Las Vegas Strip signified the end of an era for a chassis that dated to 2003 (a sleeker model with more safety features will make its debut next year, along with the addition of two new engine manufacturers that were expected to provide more marketing muscle). The $5 million bonus initially was posted to draw moonlighting drivers from other series such as NASCAR stars Johnson (who has said he promised his wife he wouldn't switch from a full-fendered car with a roof to one with an open cockpit) and Kasey Kahne (who wanted to race but said he wasn't allowed by team owner Rick Hendrick).

When Bernard couldn't find any takers aside from action sports star Travis Pastrana (who suffered season-ending injuries in the X Games in July), Wheldon was chosen as the only driver eligible for the $5 million bounty.

Bernard said he was feeling the emotional brunt of the tragedy, although not because of the $5 million bonus Wheldon and his team, Sam Schmidt Motorsports, were chasing. Bernard noted Wheldon, a veteran of 133 IndyCar races, had started at the back of other series races and won.

Wheldon charged from 34th to 24th during the first 10 laps of the race before the fatal crash, but Eddie Gossage, president of Texas Motor Speedway, said the bonus had nothing to do with what happened. "Great drivers are trying to do anything they can to win and are no more motivated by $5 million than a Popsicle," Gossage said. "I'm sick for Randy. He made a big splash and was trying hard, and this is your worst nightmare. But the sport has suffered fatalities on street courses, road course and ovals."

Bernard said he visited Wheldon's widow, Susie, late Sunday. He declined to comment on their conversation.

Wheldon's crash might accelerate the disappearance of ovals in IndyCar, which has struggled to draw crowds at the types of races that produce the most passing. The series is committed to return to Vegas as its season finale next year, but it might only run at one other 1.5-mile oval — Texas Motor Speedway — next year.

It's been a trend for the circuit, which raced exclusively on ovals from 1996 to 2004 as the Indy Racing League. The 2008 absorption of the Champ Car World Series (which competed predominantly on the road and street courses that are prevalent in Europe and worldwide) spurred a movement away from ovals, which have a direct link to the short-track grass-roots of American racing in stock cars and open-wheel racing.

"If you want to be popular in America, you have to run an oval-centric schedule," Gossage said. "The cars have to adapt to run these oval tracks, or I don't think the sport has a very bright future."

Transparent investigation important

The loss of Wheldon — a charming Englishman whose effervescence landed him a TV gig this year when he was sidelined by a lack of sponsorship — also comes as the series' star power is taking a signficant hit.

Danica Patrick, the face of IndyCar since she became the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500 in 2005, will head to a full-time ride next year in NASCAR, whose fan following still dwarfs IndyCar's despite a recent decline.

Zak Brown, the founder and CEO of Just Marketing International (which has represented sponsors in IndyCar, NASCAR and Formula One), says IndyCar has enough stars and tight competition to weather the losses but must commit to a transparent investigation of Wheldon's crash.

"If you look at fatalities in racing, it's not really had a negative business impact," said Brown, noting the deaths of icons Dale Earnhardt in NASCAR and Ayrton Senna in Formula One led to safety advances but not sponsor pullouts. "It's part of the sport; it's just so infrequent now that we're all stunned when it happens. As safe as we've made the sport, it still can happen. … Fans aren't going to stop coming to races; I don't think sponsors will pull back.

"You have to make sure that you study and fully understand what happened. Was it too many cars? Was the track too small or too fast, or was it a case of the wrong accident at the wrong time? … This is a dangerous sport, and cars are going fast. My teammate Jovy Marcelo was killed at Indy (in 1992) doing 170 mph by himself. People ask is 220 too fast, but it usually comes down to a strange angle or impact. It's rarely because a driver was doing 220 or 205."

In preseason testing, drivers expressed concern about the Las Vegas track. It hadn't hosted an IndyCar-style race in more than six years, none since its banking was raised to 20 degrees in 2006. That ensured drivers could run flat-out on the 1.5-mile oval without lifting off the accelerator.

"It's going to create a big pack," Marco Andretti said in March. "I like those races, but it'll be dangerous. … But we're racing drivers. We'll deal with it."

When drivers arrived in Las Vegas last weekend, they were given 3 hours, 15 minutes of practice over three days.

Patrick, who set the pace in the opening practice with a 224.719-mph lap, was surprised IndyCar didn't open the track for a full day of drafting practice, to allow drivers to get a feel for driving in a pack on the track.

Among the record 34 drivers in the race were several who had made only a few starts this season. Many teams entered an extra car because they are switching to a new chassis next year.

Officials warned drivers before the race about being patient and tempering their aggression, but team owner Michael Andretti said, "You can tell them don't pass, lay back. It just doesn't happen. You can't put the responsibility all on them."

Safety measures not always enough

Sunday's crash wasn't the first time an IndyCar went airborne on a 1.5-mile speedway, but Wheldon was the first driver killed recently in such a crash. Davey Hamilton (Texas, 2001), Kenny Brack (Texas, 2003) and Ryan Briscoe (Chicagoland Speedway, 2005) spent months recovering from injuries after their cars hit the fences that prevent cars from sailing into grandstands.

Speed and Versus analyst Robin Miller, who has covered motor sports for more than 40 years, said the brand of racing is way too dangerous. "You can't get out of the throttle because someone will run over the top of you. It's not racing. It's like a big game of chicken. … These tracks were built for NASCAR stock cars going 50 or 60 mph slower."

Several industry observers have compared the IndyCar racing on high-banked ovals with the pack racing once seen in NASCAR races at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway. At those tracks, NASCAR requires a carburetor plate that restricts airflow to the engine and chokes down horsepower, keeping speeds below 200 mph.

IndyCar could look at similar ways to reduce speeds, whether by restricting horsepower or adding "drag" that increases aerodynamic resistance. Wheldon was involved in testing the 2012 chassis that is touted as a safer vehicle for IndyCar.

Gossage, who was on a panel that helped select next year's new IndyCar chassis, said it would have front ends that essentially would act like bumpers to prevent cars from climbing over each other's wheels, such as the incident that launched Wheldon's car Sunday.

"Time will tell if that helps," Gossage said. "But when something happens like yesterday, I don't know if any car is safe enough."

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