On Sunday, Oct. 16, 2011, English motorsports professional, Daniel Wheldon, driving for the Sam Schmidt Motorsports team in the 2011 IndyCar Series in America, died during the race. It wasn't just that Wheldon died. It was the fact that he died on track, while racing at speeds in excess of 200 mph. Worse still was the fact that he died amid a stomach-churning 15-car pile-up, of which fellow professional Ryan Briscoe, quoted in an earlier IBTimes article, said, (The accident) it looked like a war scene from Terminator... there were just pieces of metal and car on fire in the middle of the track with no car attached to it.
The incident happened on Lap 13 (of a 200 lap race!), at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The race was the final one of a 17-race season that saw the sport's governing body - the Indy Racing League (IRL) take contestants to 7 Oval/Speedway circuits and 10 Road/Street circuits. For the record, the race was stopped after the accident and Dario Franchitti, who was leading at the time, was declared the winner.
Any analysis of the incident must begin with an understanding not only of what happened but also the context within which it did.
The IRL is the administrative body of a set of three open-wheel auto racing championships - the IZOD IndyCar series (in which Wheldon died), the Firestone Indy Lights series and the U.S. F2000 National Championship. The IRL is owned by Hulman & Co., a family-owned chain of wholesale groceries, tobacco and liquor stores and has no connection - sporting or commercial - with Formula 1 (a similar open-wheel auto racing championship that runs primarily in Europe and now in Asia) or the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), a non-profit organization that governs a number of motorsport championships across the world.
In brief, the IRL was formed in 1994 by Tony George, the President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Hulman & Co. Their top-level championship series - the IZOD IndyCar series - went live in 1996, with a measly 3 races on its calendar but a staggering total of 44 drivers. All three circuits were super speedways, meaning that they consisted of long straights connected by banked corners; the emphasis, not unnaturally was on speed.
Since the IZOD series first started, 16 years ago, there have been staggering numbers of crashes. For the more seriously statistically minded readers, a rather detailed break-up of each race of every season since the beginning of the championship is available here. However, as an example of the numbers, here is a random total of 11 races spread across more than a decade of IRL action (with a gap of at least three years between each chosen championship, to allow for IRL safety reviews and implementations). The statistics do not make particularly good reading.
Number of cars that crashed out
- Las Vegas 500K
- Indy 200
- Visionaire 500
- 9 cautions for a total of 83 laps
- 3 cautions for a total of 13 laps
- 4 cautions for a total of 27 laps
- Indy 500
- Radisson 200
- 7 cautions for a total of 39 laps
- 5 cautions for a total of 28 laps
- Bombardier 500
- Firestone Indy 200
- Honda Indy 225
- 5 cautions for a total of 37 laps
- 7 cautions for a total of 52 laps
- 3 cautions for a total of 26 laps
- Peak Antifreeze and Motor Oil Indy 300
- Camping World Indy GP
- Indy 500
- 7 cautions for a total of 53 laps
- 6 cautions for a total of 14 laps
- 8 cautions for a total of 69 laps
What a cursory glance at the statistics will not, however, say is that in the 16 years of racing, there have been a total of 4 deaths.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Las Vegas Motor Speedway
The point here is not to prattle on about the obvious dangers of motorsports. Any motorsport professional will tell you that there is always an appreciable level of danger, every time a car goes out on track. Something as simple as a wheel nut, improperly screwed on, can have horrific consequences. A driver who approaches a corner even a few miles per hour faster than he should, could lose control of a 200 mph tank of gasoline and wind up the centerpiece of an accident that makes a volcanic eruption look like a piece of cake. This has happened before, not only in IRL but in motorsports across the world; the 1994 crash that claimed the life of Formula 1 legend Ayrton Senna and enormous accidents like the time when Michael Schumacher's 2003 Formula 1 car caught fire while in the pit lane at the Austrian Grand Prix (due to a faulty re-fueling nozzle) or in 1999 when Schumacher, again, was involved in a crash at the British Grand Prix (he broke his leg) are examples enough.
What must be of concern is the response of the IRL to Wheldon's death.
The questions must be - Did the IRL learn from the three previous deaths? Were safety standards sufficiently upgraded? Were the tracks on which the cars raced safe enough? If not, what was done to improve them? The answers, pouring in now from across the Internet, seem to be saying, emphatically, no.
There are two primary points that must be considered. The first is the nature of the tracks; the second, the speed at which the cars travel. It cannot have missed anyone's attention that all four IRL deaths have happened at speedways - where the emphasis is not only on outright speed but also a ridiculously close grouping of all race cars. An analysis in Popular Mechanics points out the obvious.
Cars are too fast, and too close. Daytona International Speedway, where (Dale) Earnhardt, died a decade ago, is a 2.5-mile tri-oval with 31 degrees of banking. It was built in 1958, and since then, stock cars have gotten so sophisticated that drivers can circle Daytona without ever lifting off the gas. In 1987, Bill Elliott qualified with an average speed of 210 mph. That's simply too fast... said the report.
In an earlier report on IBTimes, Jimmie Johnson, a NASCAR professional who suffered an accident of his own on Oct. 15 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, stated categorically that IndyCar must stop racing on oval circuits.
Cars drive far too fast when they race on ovals, and the cars were not built to withstand the rocking and bumping that happens on an oval track, said Johnson, who was also quoted by the Sacramento Bee as saying that IndyCars were built for road courses (purpose-built race tracks, with well-designed and adequate safety standards).
What is, perhaps, disturbing is that these comments have been made - by professionals, experts and journalists - for a very long time now.
Tony Renna's 2003 death was followed by an official review, which focused on why the car went into the air and what happened during the accident. Interestingly, the review quotes Brian Barnhart, President of Race Operations, as saying that the goal of a crash review was, and this part cannot be emphasized enough, not why a crash happens.
The goal of an Indy Racing League accident review is to learn as much as we can about what happens during a crash, not necessarily why a crash happened, Barnhart is quoted as saying.
The IRL, like any other conscientious governing body, does have review sessions after every crash. It would be very naïve to suggest otherwise. It would be equally naïve to suggest that they are deliberately lackadaisical about safety standards. The fact that the IRL introduced safety requirements, according to a 1999 Sports Illustrated article, similar to (and at the same time as) those required on Formula 1 vehicles, should be proof enough that they are serious.
However, the bottom-line is that the last time a Formula 1 driver died on track was in 1994. That was nearly 15 years back. Since then, while Formula 1 has had its share of horrendous multi-car pile-ups, no one has died.
The question must be - what are they doing that the IRL isn't?
It might be well worth pointing out something else - the fact that Wheldon had accepted a $5 million challenge to deliberately start from the back of the grid in Las Vegas and attempt to pass 33 other drivers (each of whom would be driving at average speeds of 225mph) to win the race. It need hardly be said that such incentives, over and above those offered within the context of a championship, particularly to a driver who stood no mathematical chance of winning the title, was a bit like putting the cat among the pigeons. Another question IRL could maybe ask itself is if such corporate promotions play any role on track in Formula 1.