Changes to IndyCar need to be made following Wheldon's death
There were 34 cars in Sunday's race, more than any IndyCar race since 1997
Five-time Sprint Cup champ Jimmie Johnson says IndyCar shouldn't race ovals
Unfortunately, death has always been an unwelcomed companion to auto racing
LAS VEGAS -- 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.