As most of you are probably aware, IndyCar driver, Dan Wheldon, died on Sunday. He succumbed to his injuries in a horrific crash at the IRL season finale held at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. I don’t want to talk about the crash or point fingers, but I just want to touch on some points that invariability get brought up in the aftermath of a tragedy like this.
Naturally the topics of speed and safety are raised. These cars go fast. Yes, they do. Are they faster than the engineering can support? I don’t think so. There have been times when the power has had the upper hand over handling and the sport has had to reel the power in. I don’t think we’re in that situation here. Some people have mentioned that NASCAR is a safer sport than open wheel and I would debate that. Ignoring Dale Earnhardt’s crash, look at Dario Franchitti’s NASCAR crash from a few years ago when he got tee-boned. His driver’s side caved in exposing him the elements. IndyCars are well-designed cars. Formula One incorporated some of their design features for front end crashes because they were superior. As with all single seaters, open canopy is an issue, but if you look at the current IndyCars, the driver’s head and neck is protected immensely. Those cars, like all racecars are built as well as they can be. Consider these vehicles are traveling two and three times freeway speeds and fatalities are a rarity in the sport. There's an element of risk in this sport and you accept it or you don’t compete.
My writing and racing buddy, Rick Helms made a valid point on Sunday. He said, “Racing drivers have the most remarkable ability to—on one hand—place themselves into amazingly dangerous situations while—at the same time—engaging in complete denial that this could by their day. Not one driver in the race at Vegas today strapped into the car fearful for his or her life.” And Rick is right. I don’t know if you call it compartmentalization or passion trumping good sense or plain denial, but I never once strapped myself into a racecar fearing for my life. I won’t say I wasn’t scared. Sometimes that six-point kept me from leaping the car and running for mummy. What scared me wasn’t dying or serious injury. I knew it was an option, but I had faith in my car that it would protect me. No, my overriding fear wasn’t death, but failing. I wanted to give it my all and cross that finish line with a result that meant something. Leaving the race with an expensive wreck or a DNF to my name scared me more.
Unfortunately, I’ve known a couple of drivers who died at races and it does affect me. I mourn the people I’ve known or admired every time I’m at a track where the tragedy happened or an anniversary rolls around. As much as I didn’t want it happen to me, no driver stopped me from getting back into a car again. It couldn’t dislodge my desire to race.
As for the crash, people have pointed fingers at the track design, inexperienced drivers and a number of other factors and while there may be some merit to these claims, crashes like involving lots of cars happen. They're rare, but they happen. Even though cars are racing wheel to wheel, you’d be surprised at the rhythm to a race. You have an awareness to what it happening around you. Even when someone spins out, the rhythm remains intact and the race continues. Unfortunately, there are those times a sequence of small crashes ignite a pileup. I was in a race where I was one of only four cars to survive the first two corners. It started with two cars coming together at the front of the pack, a couple of people overreacted to start other small crashes. This unsettled some of the remaining drivers and they took that uncertainty into the next corner wiping out more cars. The whole thing unfolded like a scene from a Final Destination movie and it was ugly and scary. As much as crashes involving large numbers of cars shouldn’t happen, they do and they will continue to do so. Stopping them is like claiming we should bring an end to winter. It ain’t gonna happen.
I’m not sure if I have a point to this piece other than to give a little insight. At the end of the day, a driver who I truly admired lost his life and I wish it could be taken back. I accept that tragedies like Dan’s happen, as does every racing driver and everybody should too.