Questions Must Be Raised About Vegas Race

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, October 20 2011

Track workers give thumbs up to drivers as they take a five-lap salute to Dan Wheldon, who was killed in a wreck earlier in the day.

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

It’s not precisely clear what happened in the big wreck that claimed the life of driver Dan Wheldon at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in terms of who caused it.

And that is OK. No one individual should be singled out for what happened. No good can come from fingering a “guilty party”. And after repeated views of video of the moments leading up to the 15-car wreck, it is impossible to single anybody out, anyway.

But there are circumstances which need to be pointed out when analyzing a wreck which was as bad any contained in the collective memory banks. Circumstances which need to be examined and addressed and right now.

Here, for me, are a couple of those circumstances and questions surrounding them.

The first: Was INDYCAR in violation of its own rules? Rules which govern the number of cars in races at specific tracks.

It appears that the series may have been in violation of those rules.

On page 93 of the 2011 rule book, it says:

“The starting fields for each Race shall be a maximum of 28 Cars (which includes 2 provisionals), except as follows:

(a) Brazil – 26 Cars (which includes 2 provisionals)

(b) Indianapolis 500 Mile Race – 33 Cars (no provisionals)

(c) Toronto – 27 Cars (which includes 2 provisionals)

(d) Mid Ohio – 27 Cars (which includes 2 provisionals)

(e) Motegi – 26 Cars (which includes 2 provisionals)

(f) Baltimore – 26 Cars (which includes 2 provisionals)”

So, according to the rule book, the field at Las Vegas was six cars larger than it should have been. The fact that INDYCAR has rules in place that govern the size of fields would seem to acknowledge that problems could occur from excessively high car counts.

Rules aside, putting 34 Indycars on the Las Vegas track seems to violate common sense. Las Vegas Motor Speedway is a 1.5-mile tri-oval. Its surface is banked to 20 degrees in the corners. It is lightening fast.

Drivers and teams were reportedly nervous during practice about the speeds the cars were going and the size of the field for Sunday’s race.

After the fatal wreck, which occurred on lap 11 and prompted INDYCAR to cancel the remainder of the race, driver after driver questioned the decision to hold the event in the first place.

Veteran drivers such as Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti used terms such as “unsuitable” when talking about the track vis a vis modern Indycars and the size of the field.

This, too, is common sense for virtually everyone who follows racing, but it still needs to be said: Indycars are not NASCAR cars. The drivers of Indycars are much more vulnerable to the kinds of things that happened at Las Vegas than are NASCAR drivers.

The second: Were there people on that track who should not have been on that track?

Perhaps. I think it fair to argued that there were people on that track, and other tracks, simply because they could drum up enough sponsorship to be there. So-called ride-buyers.

That belief here is; ride buying can be a dangerous practice.

That is nominally so in stock cars where the drivers are surrounded by steal and composite cocoons. In open-wheel racing, a lack of talent and experience can be highly dangerous.

One of the things that has kept more crazy wrecks from happening, and fewer medical helicopters in the air at Indycar events over the years, has been the fact that the vast majority of people in the cars were qualified to be there.

Drivers knew and could trust the person next to them on the track. They knew dumb moves would be kept to a minimum.

But the new economics have caused changes when it comes to hiring and keeping drivers. Sponsorship money is having a bigger say in who pilots the cars that teams put on the tracks.

The move toward ride buying has not flooded fields with unqualified drivers. There are some very, very good and qualified drivers who have their seats because they brought money to their teams. That simply MUST be noted.

But there are also drivers in cockpits whose credentials for being in those cockpits can and must be questioned.

The opinion here is that IndyCar races should not be banned on ovals, as some have suggested. In fact, the opinion is that is a ridiculous suggestion. Events at the vast majority of ovals are both exciting and as safe as can reasonably expected in racing. Stuff happens on tracks where cars are going three to four times faster than they do on interstate highways. Always will. Drivers know that.

And the opinion here is also that the events of Sunday were not the fault of Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Nor were they the result, I believe, of irresponsibility on the part of INDYCAR.

I know many of the people in offices at both those organizations and I can tell you for a fact that all went into the weekend feeling the event would be safe, and all are devastated by the wreck and death of Wheldon.

But when things like this do happen, it would be irresponsible for all – media, competitors and series – to not examine events in total.

INDYCAR says an investigation has been launched. And you can bet it will be as thorough as possible, no matter who it is doing the investigating. I really believe that.

Here’s hoping that any and all investigations result in the adoption of measures which will prevent a replay of lap 11 at Las Vegas.

Drivers’ and spectators’ lives are on the line. The future of the sport may also be on the line and it’s a darn good sport.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, October 20 2011


  • john says:

    As soon as the wreck happened, I said “how ironic, Dan Wheldon, the guy who boasted that NASCAR drivers didn’t have the skill to race Indycars, was just involved in a gigantic mess caused by drivers who don’t know wtf they’re doing.”

    Indycar has always had field fillers, perhaps even moreso than NASCAR these days. I’d barely qualify 10-12 drivers out of the field every week who have any business racing those cars. At least on road courses they’re “relatively” harmless, but on ovals they’re downright terrifying. And this wreck yet again proved it.

    And any time an Indycar fan or racer wants to argue, all you need to say is “Milka Duno.”

  • Terrell Davis says:

    Excellent piece, Jim. It is a darn fine sport, but there simply must be something done to help prevent the Indy Cars from “climbing” all over each other. I also believe an honest investigation will be conducted, but solving the problems facing Indy racing is a tall order. But, as with Earnhardt’s crash, safer racing conditions will result. What everyone has to remember is that no matter what reasonable rules are instituted, racing, particularly Indy Car racing, will continue to be a very dangerous sport. Unfortunately, Dan’s death will not be the last one. It is an inherent part of the racing business.