The death of IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon in a horrific 15-car crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Oct. 16 was a wrenching reminder that racing is a fundamentally dangerous sport. The 33-year-old Wheldon, one of the most charismatic drivers in the world, was also one of the most accomplished: a two-time Indy 500 winner and the 2005 series champion. But at Vegas he never had a chance. When two cars lost control in front of him at 220 mph, Wheldon had no time to brake or steer around the spinning, disintegrating vehicles. He was one of four drivers to go airborne in what was one of the worst crashes in the history of American motor sports.
Because of significant gains in safety that were spurred by the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001, racing fans have been lulled into a false sense of security, thrilling to video-game-like wrecks from which drivers seemingly always walk away. But Wheldon was IndyCar's second fatality in five years (Paul Dana was killed in practice at Homestead-Miami Speedway in '06), and the series was lucky that Wheldon was the only driver killed in Las Vegas.
So where does IndyCar go from here? "This has got to be IndyCar's Dale Earnhardt moment," says NASCAR team owner Jack Roush, noting the safety measures NASCAR implemented after the death of the seven-time Cup champion. "They need to look at the tracks they run on. They need to look at the power in those cars. They have created a very hostile environment for the drivers. They need to take a step back and really assess everything they do."
IndyCar officials aren't talking publicly about the crash, but on Monday at Indy they met for three hours with 20 series drivers to discuss safety initiatives. It was a positive step. A week after Wheldon's death (and a day after MotoGP rider Marco Simoncelli was killed in the Malaysian Grand Prix) many in the sport were speaking with great emotion about what needs to be done. SI talked to more than a dozen drivers, team owners, track owners and safety experts. Here are five suggestions for what IndyCar should do in the wake of Wheldon's death.
1. Stay off high-banked ovals
Twenty-four hours before the green flag at Las Vegas several drivers had expressed concern about the perilous racing conditions. In practice the cars were lapping at 224 mph; drivers never lifted off the gas because the tires were gripping the track so well. Las Vegas is a 1.5-mile oval with 20-degree banked turns. (Texas Motor Speedway is the other high-banked oval currently on the circuit.) This track was built for NASCAR races, in which speeds are about 35 mph slower. "I wouldn't run [IndyCar races] on [high-banked] ovals," says five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson. "I have a lot of friends who race in that series, and I'd just rather see them on street circuits and road courses."
The problem that high-banked ovals create for IndyCar drivers is that they allow such high speeds. Unlike in NASCAR, where drivers can bang into each other and maintain control of their cars, open-wheel drivers will wreck when their tires so much as touch. This is what happened in front of Wheldon.
2. Reduce the speeds
Every person interviewed by SI agreed on one thing: The cars are going too fast. "I don't think the casual fan will be able to tell the difference between the cars going 200 or 220," says Eddie Gossage, the president of Texas Motor Speedway. "If you do that, the cars will become much more manageable."
The best way to slow the cars would be to reduce the amount of downforce they generate. This could be done by adjusting the angle of the rear wing. By limiting the downforce, the cars wouldn't stick to the track as well in the corners, which would force the drivers to lift off the throttle to maintain control.
3. End double-file restarts
Drivers have complained to Bernard that the double-file starts, in which cars line up two abreast after a caution, need to end. Bernard implemented these restarts, which are used in NASCAR, at the beginning of the season to increase the excitement factor, even telling reporters that they lead to more wrecks—a statement that Bernard has since said he regrets.
4. Raise the SAFER walls
Las Vegas has SAFER walls—steel tubing backed by foam blocks that absorb the impact in a crash—lining the track, but Wheldon died after hitting the steel catch fence above the wall. Higher walls in the corners would make a difference.
5. Cover the back wheels
Next season IndyCar will unveil a new car that Wheldon helped test several times over the last few months. The cockpit is longer and wider, allowing for additional padding to protect the driver, and the rear wheels will be partially covered. Would this new design have saved Wheldon's life? Possibly, because he was launched into the air when he drove over the right rear wheel of Paul Tracy.
These recommendations and other technological advances will continue to address the dangers of the sport, but safety is a race with no finish line. As Dale Earnhardt Jr., who knows as much about the risks as anyone, put it after Wheldon's death, "Racing has gotten so much safer in recent years, but it's still not 100 percent safe. In racing, there are no guarantees."
SIGN OF THE APOCALYPSE
The owner of a funeral home in Bellevue, Wash., inspired by a couple he'd seen sprinkling ashes on a golf course fairway, has opened a golf-themed burial area, replete with sand trap and 820-square-foot green, where the remains of more than 1,200 enthusiasts—including grave-marked caskets, not just ashes—can be laid to rest.
ILLUSTRATION BY DARROW
STEPHEN MORRIS/VETTA/GETTY IMAGES (FLAG)