Indycar death sparks scrutiny

2011-10-18 08:03

LAS VEGAS, Nevada - Double Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon did not live long enough to see the safety innovations he was testing become the standard for the IndyCar Series in 2012.

But the 33-year-old Englishman's death on Sunday in a fiery 15-car crash at the season-ending race on a 2.4km Las Vegas banked oval has raised driver safety concerns in IndyCar, where racers duel side-by-side-by-side at 360km/h.

"We need to rethink the way we are doing things," said Brazilian racer Tony Kanaan. "One mistake can take 15 people out. We have to take care of each other. We're playing with lives here."

No Formula 1 racer has died in a race since Brazilian legend Ayrton Senna at Imola, Italy, in 1994 and no US stock car driver has been killed in a race since Dale Earnhardt's death at the finish of the 2001 Daytona 500.


In each case, the death of an iconic driver led to major safety changes and the same could come after Wheldon became the seventh IndyCar driver to be killed since 1996.

"We will address it and find a solution," vowed Scotsman Dario Franchitti, who won his third consecutive IndyCar season title when the race was aborted.

Wheldon, whose final victory was in May, 2011, at Indy after rookie leader JR Hildebrand crashed on the last turn, did not have a full-season ride and had been testing new safety features for a revamped 2012 IndyCar chassis.

Changes include greater aerodynamic downforce to slow cars, bigger cockpits for better driver protection and bodywork over the rear wheels to prevent cars from becoming airborne - as Wheldon's car did, leading to his fatal head injury.

"A lot of things that happened in this race they are hoping would not happen with these changes," said former F1 and IndyCar racer Eddie Cheever.


Cheever, an American, called the incident the most horrible he had seen in 30 years of racing, telling ESPN that IndyCar officials need to heed drivers' worries in blending race thrills with safety needs.

"Maybe the scale has tipped a little bit too far to make it more entertaining," Cheever said. "They would serve themselves well if they listened to the drivers a little bit more ... and the concerns they voiced."

Intense drivers in packs of cars racing three abreast at speeds beyond 350km/h on a tightly banked oval was a recipe for disaster, drivers said.

"A lot of us thought something might happen. We knew there was going to be some trouble," said English racer Alex Lloyd.

Spanish driver Oriol Servia said: "We all had a bad feeling about this race. We had too much banking in this track. We were too close together. We knew what could happen."


IndyCar chief executive Randy Bernard had made Wheldon the showpiece of a $5-million bonus promotion where Wheldon and an IndyCar fan would split the money if Wheldon, who started last in a field of 34, could win the race.

Wheldon, who was set to join former IndyCar and F1 racer Michael Andretti's team next season, had already moved up 10 places in the largest IndyCar field outside Indianapolis when the chain-reaction wreck took place on lap 11.

GLOWING TRIBUTE: A tribute in the Wheldon's honour at the Las Vegas Speedway.

"It's unfortunate that early on in the race they've got to be racing so close," veteran race team owner Roger Penske said. "You always worry about those at these mile-and-a-halfs (ovals) at this speed and with this many cars."

Franchitti was weeping in the cockpit before a five-lap tribute to Wheldon was driven by the racers whose cars were still able to run.

"I said before we tested here, having driven a stock car here, that this is not a suitable track," Franchitti said. "You can't get away from anybody. One small mistake and it's a massive thing."

The race was the first for IndyCars in 11 years at the Las Vegas speedway.

"There are tracks that they don't need to race at," US stock car racer and former IndyCar driver AJ Allmendinger told Fox News. "There needs to be action. There doesn't need to be 34 cars. It's a ticking time bomb. With the new car coming in, it needs to be safer."

F1 road courses offer tyre barriers, run-off areas and gravel escape zones and US stock cars have restrictor plates to curtail speeds on some ovals, while IndyCar's key oval safety feature is the SAFER barrier, an energy-absorbing wall between cars and concrete.

Wheldon became the seventh IndyCar driver to die since 1996, when Indy 500 pole winner Scott Brayton was killed in an Indy 500 practice session, and the first since 2006, when Paul Dana was killed in a pre-race practice at Miami.

Indy racing drivers react to Wheldon's death.