New Changes Indycar Should Make in Wake of Dan Wheldon


Following the tragic death of Dan Wheldon during the Las Vegas 300, the Indycar series has received harsh criticism from both within motorsport and from outsiders, suggesting that lessons needed to be learned and that the sport needs to make changes.

Guest post from Isabella Woods.

Mostly criticism has centered on the circuit, the Las Vegas Speedway, and how a congested field of 34 cars, the largest field outside the Indianapolis 500, was allowed to compete on such a narrow and short oval. But critics have also condemned the sport as a whole, suggesting Indycar racing is generically unsafe. Critics say that tragic accidents, such as the one in Las Vegas where 15 cars piled into each other and resulted in the death of the 33-year-old Wheldon, were inevitable.

And these voices are not from outside motorsport either. Former British Formula One driver, Nigel Mansell, who also won the Indycar world title in 1993, said, “In Indy racing, there is simply nowhere to go. When an accident happens you are into the wall in a split second …The trouble is there are no small accidents when accidents happen.”

Another former Formula One Champion, Jody Scheckter, also voiced the same concerns. Scheckter who has urged his son, Tomas, to quit the sport, said Indycar was “the most dangerous motorsport in the world.”

While both compared the sport to Formula One, which hasn’t seen a fatal accident since Aryton Senna died in 1994, the comparison is hardly fair. The two sports, while sharing the similarity of open wheeled cars that travel in excess of 200 mph, remain as different as hockey is to football.

Formula One drivers don’t drive on ovals, and it is oval racing in particular that critics suggest is what is so dangerous about Indycar, but by limiting the number of ovals, or by driving only on road race circuits, the essence of Indycar would be lost, turning it into just another form of Formula One. Oval racing in America is a tradition that many motorsports critics outside of the United States just simply don’t get, but it is what makes Indycar so special.

Picture: Ovals are at the heart of Indycar racing.

The critics do have a point, though. When the first car ran into trouble during the Las Vegas 300, within seconds, 15 cars had been trashed and several had erupted into flames, a sight no motorsport fan wants to see, and a sight that Indycar should take pains to ensure is never repeated, but where else can Indycar look to make changes?

Would limiting the number of cars on track, spacing the runners around the circuit, prevent such a pile-up as such that happened in Vegas? Perhaps, but with drafting and slipstreaming an essential aspect to the sport, cars are still going to run in a pack, reduced number or not.

Then what about reducing the capabilities of cars to run so close together by altering their aerodynamic efficiency? While reducing the capabilities of an Indycars to draft, slipstream and run close together as they cruise deals with the problem of the field being so tightly packed, it creates a completely new problem – a complete change to the sport and the spectacle.

Indycar has always seen close action. While critics from Formula One may suggest the sport is dangerous, F1 too has had its criticism over the years, mainly centered on the lack of overtaking and lack of wheel-to-wheel racing. F1 has taken great pains to make changes, introducing all sorts of new ideas to increase the ability of drivers to get up close and overtake, such as the drag reduction system (DRS), which reduces rear drag on the straightaway giving cars an instant boost in speed. But does Indycar, a sport that has already lost its position of the number one motorsport in America to Nascar, want to make alterations that may risk turning each race into a boring procession?

If changing the circuits and cars is impractical, there is only one variable left – the driver. While Wheldon, like most of the field competing in the Las Vegas event, had years of motorsport racing behind him, having worked his way up through the junior ranks, the tightly packed field also comprised eight rookies. Many had little experience on oval racing, and many ended up in the 15-car pile-up that resulted in Wheldon’s death. Perhaps, here, is where Indycar can learn its lessons from its sister sport.

Drivers racing in Formula One are already champions from other motorsports, many have won titles such as the F1 precursor GP2 championship, racing on tracks similar to those the F1 drivers are competing on. But with Indycar, there is less of an apprenticeship to oval racing, Many rookie Indycar drivers arrive at the sport with little or no oval racing experience, resulting in their baptism of fire being all too literal.

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