I speak for most racing fans when I say that I’m in a complete state of disarray after the tragedy that took place in Las Vegas this past weekend. It’s difficult to comprehend what happened. It’s difficult to accept what happened. It’s impossible to understand why it took that smiling and kind, yet passionate competitor from us. There isn’t much doubt in my mind that I am just one in a million who lost sleep with the images still fresh in my mind.
Because, like many, I thoroughly enjoy Indycar racing, the finale at Las Vegas was definitely one that I had circled on my calendar. Before the season began, Speedway Motorsports Inc CEO Bruton Smith created a challenge specifically designed for the last race of the year at Las Vegas. His idea was to award $5 million to any driver who is not a series regular. In theory, this idea was genius. Thirty-four cars showed up to Las Vegas, many non-regulars with the intent on winning the 5 million. One of these drivers was 2011 Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon. Wheldon was given a chance to run in Sam Schmidt Motorsport’s 77 car, usually driven by Alex Tagliani. Unfortunately, due to a poor qualifying effort, Wheldon had to start shotgun on the field.
When the race started, Bruton’s plan seemed to be working perfectly. The thirty-four cars competitively snaked around the Las Vegas circuit, putting on an impressive show. Wheldon was making a charge towards the front, moving up ten positions in fewer than ten laps. While riding on board with the Brit, tire smoke appeared a few cars in front of him. Suddenly, the unthinkable happened. Approximately four cars appeared to be headed for the outside turn two wall, and caught fire once they made contact. Only fractions of a second later, ten more cars piled in, sending some into the air like kites on a windy day. Suddenly, one of these cars struck the catch fence extremely hard, appearing to explode on impact. What were left were fifteen scattered and broken cars; the debris was compared to that of a plane crash. The once white walls were now black with fire damage. This is what we all had feared.
Silence flooded the track. No one really knew which cars crashed, and more importantly, which car had flown up into the catch fence. The ABC broadcasters did not initially give out any detailed information, other than there were about fifteen cars that were involved, including championship contender Will Power. As time passed, driver after driver was seen stepping out of their damaged cars. Drivers, such as Pippa Mann, were seen getting assistance from on track personnel, as it appeared she might have had an injury. Something, however, was not right. Marty Reid, ABC’s main play-by-play announcer, mentioned that Wheldon was involved, but there was no word on his condition. Eventually the cameras caught a glimpse of his destroyed car. As time passed, it was clear that it was, indeed, the 77 car of Dan Wheldon that had been violently thrown into the catch fence.
No one knew his current situation, other than that he was injured. No one knew if his injuries were career or even life threatening. The first person to shed light on the grim situation was veteran driver Paul Tracy. During a live interview, he claimed that Dan had twenty some doctors around him and was in considerably bad shape. At this moment, if not already fearing the worst, the entire Indy Car world knew that this situation was serious.
I cannot remember what it was. Was it the sheer violence of the accident? Was it the silence? Was it Paul’s unforgettable words? Something clicked during that span that made me realize that we were possibly looking at the first Indy Car fatality since ’06 when Paul Dana died in a warm-up crash, and the first in a race since ’99 when Greg Moore crashed violently in Fontana. It may have even been the image of the car flying into the catch fence and exploding on impact that made my heart sink.
Catch fence accidents are not new for any form of racing. The most famous one occurred in 2003 when Kenny Brack hit the catch fence during a race in Texas, enduring around 214 g’s. Other examples like this include Ryan Briscoe’s 2005 crash at Chicagoland and Mike Conway’s horrific accident during the 2010 Indy 500. The fear of a car locking tires or launching off the back of another car was always present. The aforementioned incidences never included a car going cockpit first into a catch fence, but the fear was always there and I always knew deep down inside that it was only a matter of time until something like that happened. Even though this fear was always inside me, I never saw it coming.
What came next was an agonizing 2-hour red flag. We now all knew that the situation was serious, and all we could do was wait for any word on Dan’s condition. Drivers, both those who were involved in the accident and those that made it through, were interviewed. All expressed concern for their competitor and friend. At one moment, the TV showed Danica Patrick in tears. Shortly after all of the drivers were called to a meeting. It felt like an eternity, but for what could have only been several minutes later, the final announcement was made by Indycar CEO Randy Bernard that the racing world had lost Dan Wheldon.
All that we had feared had come true. The Indycar Series lost one of its most talented drivers, and more importantly the entire world of motorsports lost one of the most genuine and charismatic individuals around. Earlier this season, Versus had the pleasure of welcoming Dan to the booth to do a play-by-play. He was undoubtedly one of the best play-by-play analysts around and had a future in that business once his racing career had ended. Sadly, it ended long before he could get that chance again.
After the conclusion of the events at Las Vegas, questions were being quickly and furiously raised. Many drivers mentioned shortly after the wreck occurred that the conditions were not good for racing. Thirty-four cars are too many for a steeply-banked 1.5-mile track. These cars can travel around 230 mph, and drivers do not lift anywhere on the track. When something happens, it’s nearly impossible to react.
Now, however, is not a time to point fingers. Some blame the inexperience of some of the drivers on the track. Others blame the track conditions and others blame the safety of the cars. Is any one of these aspects fully to blame? No. Yes, some drivers were not as experienced as others, but they are fully capable competitors, or they would not be allowed to race. With this in mind, there were clearly too many drivers on a fast track, such as Las Vegas. Were the track conditions too dangerous? Yes; however, this is not something new to the Indycar Series. Tracks, such as Texas and Kentucky can, and have produced terrifying speeds and huge accidents. It is not a Las Vegas issue by itself. Finally, are the cars too dangerous? Not entirely. Since Alex Zinardi’s near fatal accident and Paul Dana’s fatal accident, numerous safety improvements have been made to ensure the safety of a driver. Unfortunately, if Mike Conway’s accident, or Dan Wheldon’s accident, had happened at a slightly different angle, we may have a much different story on our hands.
There are areas to improve in all three of these categories. It is not so simple. Jimmie Johnson expressed general concern with Indycars racing on ovals. He went as far as to say completely get rid of oval racing. Although this may be slightly far fetched, Jimmie has a legitimate concern for the safety of the drivers. I, like many, do not think wiping the slate clean of oval racing is the right answer. One issue I see with that view is that cars can easily get airborne on a street or road course. Although the speed is considerably less, there is still danger. Getting rid of ovals will lessen the danger, but not get rid of it completely. Ovals have always had a place within American open-wheel racing. That is not going to change anytime in the near future.
Changes are going to be made. The manner of these changes is currently unknown. Right now there’s simple speculation and thoughts being made to prevent anything like this happening again. This moment, as I stated earlier, is not a time to point fingers. Now is the time to remember Dan and all he did for this racing community. It will take some time for the racing community to heal. The Indycar series has gone under some scrutiny over the past decade and this will only hurt it. There is a future for Indycar racing, but right now we’re all still in shock. I’m having a lot of trouble comprehending the fact that Dan is no longer with us. I’m having trouble comprehending that a day that was supposed to be dedicated to the crowning of a champion was something much different. The pain of this weekend will never truly leave. We as a racing community must, however, move forward and continue building a future for this series. It was what Dan would have wanted.
Rest in peace Dan. You will be truly missed by all.