Dan Wheldon: Let the probe begin

2011-10-19 11:28

By Associated Press' JENNY FRYER
In-depth on Las Vegas hell

Dan Wheldon, one of IndyCar's biggest and most popular stars, died in a spectacular 15-car accident that racing veterans likened to something out of a movie or a war zone.

Now everyone - even those who never paid any attention to any form of motorsports let alone IndyCar - is demanding answers, just as they did 10 years ago when Dale Earnhardt was killed on the last lap of the Daytona 500.


The death of the seven-times champion in Nascar's biggest race led to intense scrutiny. Now, only days after double Indianapolis 500 winner Wheldon died in a spectacular 15-car accident, IndyCar is facing similar questions.

It took $1-million and nearly six months of independent investigation for Nascar  to determine the combination of factors that killed Earnhardt. Even after the most comprehensive look at safety in Nascar history, it determined that lots of things needed to be fixed, and that there wasn't one simple fix that could have prevented the accident.

Now, IndyCar officials must provide their own set of answers...

IndyCar chairman Randy Bernard didn't kill Dan Wheldon. Fans have directed harsh words his way because Wheldon was racing on Sunday for the $5-million bounty Bernard had offered him to win the race.

Placing blame won't help heal the grieving auto racing community or comfort Wheldon's widow and two young sons. It won't help Wheldon's broken-hearted family, led by his father Clive who so eloquently spoke in England of a loved 33-year-old who loved life and, by all accounts, had not a single enemy.


So, instead of sending Bernard Twitter hate mail, fans should consider sending a positive note to Wheldon's family. Let Bernard and all of IndyCar focus instead on honouring Wheldon the best way possible - by working to make sure nobody else dies.

There's a ton of issues that must be addressed and, although Bernard is the first to admit he's made mistakes in his first two years with IndyCar, there's no room for further error.

LOVE-BEAR TRIBUTE: A ticket to the Las Vegas Speedway IndyCar race in which Dan Wheldon was killed is clutched by a cute stuffed bear outside the track as one of the tributes to the dead driver. Image: AFP

First up is the issue of racing on ovals...

The knee-jerk reaction is to call for a ban on IndyCars racing on ovals. Five-times Nascar champion Jimmie Johnson said as much on Monday but he wasn't talking about a total ban. The concern is ovals with high banking, which Las Vegas has, and how it fits with the speed of an IndyCar.

Faced with an identity crisis and an urgency to build momentum, the present IndyCar model calls for racing on ovals.

Bernard said two weeks before Wheldon's death: "To me, the most important thing we can do is differentiate ourselves from all other forms of motorsport. You have to have your own niche. We want to be known as the fastest race car with the most versatile driver in the world.

"Nobody runs the speeds we do with the versatility - the ovals, the super ovals, the short ovals, road and street and we run in the rain. I love that."

To continue on all ovals, though, will require serious changes. IndyCar must break up pack racing. The only way to do that is to figure out a way that the cars can get some separation and drivers aren't forced to run wide-open every lap to avoid being hit by following cars.


Sunday's race was the final event for the series' current cars. Wheldon spent 2011 as the development driver for the new car, which will debut in 2012 with features intended to improve safety - wider cockpit, energy-absorbing materials underneath and behind the driver, wide bodywork designed to prevent wheels interlocking in side-by-side racing.

But there's always room for more improvements and driver Alex Tagliani called on Twitter for veterans Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves, Will Power, Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay "to get together... and push drastic changes".

HIGH WAY TO HEAVEN: Dan Wheldon's Dellara Honda (No77, bottom left) flies though the air as part of the carnage at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. A few moments later he would be dead. Image: AFP

Tagliani's suggestions include: less downforce (which would decrease handling and force more braking thereby making it difficult for drivers to go wide-open through curves); changes to the nose of the car; side wheel-protection for oval racing

Paul Tracy and Oriol Servia, meanwhile, want improvements to the catch fencing. Earnhardt's death led to the installation of barriers at every Nascar-sanctioned speedway but the catch-fencing remains unchanged.

When Carl Edwards' sailed into the fence in 2009 at Talladega it bowed but held and kept Edwards' car from sailing into the crowded grandstand. The Las Vegas fence held for Wheldon but it seems the open cockpit took a direct hit. So, although Tracy has called for Plexiglass sheeting along the fences, it's unlikely that would have helped Wheldon.

There also has been debate about developing a closed cockpit-canopy, and that's certainly something that needs further exploration.

Former Formula 1 driver David Coulthard called on IndyCar to limit speeds. He wrote in a column in the UK's Daily Telegraph: "There is no need, in my opinion, to be racing at 360km/h, wheel-to-wheel, around mostly oval circuits. You don't need to be doing that to entertain the crowds."


Three-times F1 World champion Jackie Stewart questioned having 34 cars at Las Vegas, the field a mixed level of experience. A portion of the field was drivers with limited experience, another veterans who only make a handful of starts each year.

"Will the calibre of driver be high enough to be able to control those cars at those kinds of speeds?" Stewart asked. "There were a good many drivers in there who were not regulars and were not full-time IndyCar drivers. I think that's a consideration to be looked at."

Bernard and his officials must consider all these factors and more. No matter what safety improvements are made, one thing will never change: how drivers choose to race each other.

"We have to take care of each other," Tony Kanaan said after Sunday's accident. "We're playing with lives here."

  • Grant - 2011-10-19 17:07

    Motor racing is - by nature - a dangerous sport. People are going to die from time to time. Trying to prevent this will reduce motor racing to even more boring levels

  • Ry - 2011-10-20 13:00

    I agree with you Grant, Wheldon knew he was participating in a dangerous sport and was paid handsomly to do so. Yes, safer cars must always be a priority, but to start blaming other people for his death is ridiculous. Racing and deadly crashes goes hand in hand and that is the way it will always be. It was an accident and thats that, look at making it safer yes, but don't spoil the spectacle of racing by doing so

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