Racing Rap by Jack Nerad for Driving Today

‘Perfect Storm’ Killed Wheldon

Monday, January 16, 2012

The report is in, and now we know the official details regarding the death of Dan Wheldon, which occurred during the final IndyCar race of the year. The official explanation is that a combination of factors -- the now cliched “perfect storm” -- was what conspired to take the young champion’s life, but that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow.

What were those factors? One major culprit, according to the IndyCar-commissioned report, was the track at Las Vegas Motor Speedway -- a track that might never see IndyCar racing again. The track surface permits a wide variety of lines and encourages three-across racing, which is fine for full-bodied cars (i.e., NASCAR racers) but not especially good for open-wheel cars (i.e., IndyCars).

“Racing grooves not only restrict drivers’ naturally aggressive racing behavior, but make the location of another competitor’s car on the racetrack more predictable,” says the official report on the incident. The Las Vegas track doesn’t feature traditional grooves, which means it is not well-suited for high-horsepower open-wheel racing like IndyCar.

That is what is so troubling. If the track is not appropriate for IndyCar racers, you have to wonder what IndyCars were doing on the track in the first place. Now, in the wake of the tragedy, IndyCar has decided to skip Las Vegas Motor Speedway next year. If the track is unsafe for open-wheel cars and IndyCar knows it, then why wasn’t that decision made before we lost Wheldon?

In the multicar crash that killed Wheldon, contact with other racers sent his car into the air, and it flew more than 300 feet before being gathered up by a catch fence. Coming to rest against the catch fence was supposed to happen, but Wheldon’s head apparently struck a post holding up the fence, and that is what proved fatal. That’s another troubling circumstance. Protective fences are built to save lives, not take them.

Finally, there is the whole issue of the multimillion-dollar bonus that Wheldon was competing for. Without that, Wheldon would not even have been in the race. Certainly the promotional stunt didn’t contribute directly to the accident, but it is one of the strange ironies of racing that tragedy always seems to find those who are in situations like Wheldon.

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