Today I spoke with Indy Motor Sports anchor Mike King about Sunday’s racing death of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, Dan Wheldon. Just 33 years old, Wheldon stood at the peak of his powers. Then came a fifteen car pile-up at the Las Vegas Speedway, and Wheldon was a casualty of his sport. King, who was understandably distraught, called Wheldon “racing’s Beckham”: British, handsome, and “on race day he was like a politician on Election Day. There wasn’t a baby he wouldn’t kiss or a hand he wouldn’t shake.”
As often is the case after a death in motor sports, there has been an instant call for some kind of reform. But it’s hard to imagine what could be done to make open-wheel racing safer. If you have the stomach to see the crash itself, it seems a miracle that five, six or seven people didn’t die with Wheldon. Unlike their tin-can forbears, open-wheel cars are now constructed with space-age technology and materials. If our personal cars were that safe, they would cost as much as a house. The greater and more somber takeaway is that death is accepted as endemic to the sport. Open-wheel racing is on average 50 mph faster than their NASCAR brethren. The skill set of drivers at a given race tends to be remarkably varied and the stakes are in the millions of dollars. Those ingredients produce a regular rhythm of tragedy acknowledged by all participants. In IndyCar Racing, there have been four deaths since 1996. In all of auto racing, there is a full glossary online of those who didn’t make it off the track. Making the sport safe is like trying to make the NFL concussion-free: it’s like asking a dog to meow.
The drivers understand that death stalks their sport. But what they can’t abide is a track that aided and abetted the crash. There was no reason for Sunday’s race to go off on a Las Vegas track that had already been complained about by multiple drivers and analysts as completely unsafe for open-wheel driving. As Jerry Garrett wrote in the New York Times, “The layout had a basic problem: its oval had been constructed with rather illogical angles and degrees of banking, requiring continual adjustments by drivers accustomed to setting the steering wheel at a given angle and maintaining an expected trajectory. Drivers complained of not being able to find a smooth, safe racing line.” Even worse, in 2007, the embankment angle was changed from 12 degrees to 20 degrees making it even faster and more dangerous. The tight track, combined with the speed created an effect, as racer Scott Meadow said, “more like 30 airplanes racing together than cars.”
In other words, the track was too fast, too small and too crowded. But in the face of complaints from drivers, journalists and other observers, IndyCar’s own website trumpeted the danger of the track on October 16 to gin up interest in the race. The article stated that Sunday’s contest “could be the wildest race of the season.” Headlines like “Hot Spots on hot Las Vegas Track,” noted that “while a hot spot is generally one portion of the racetrack, at Las Vegas it’s the entire race course.” Time magazine caught that the website cited James Hinchliffe, a rookie driver, who said before the race, “The hot spot is every inch of the 1.5 miles. It’s such a grippy track. A place like Kentucky there are bumps and the cars move around a little bit. Here, they aren’t doing that and we are race car drivers and will take every inch that we are given and you have just eliminated all the margin. The racing is so close and when something goes wrong it can really go wrong.”
Before it was announced that Wheldon had died but after the crash, racing star Dario Franchitti said he had long felt the track was not fit for racing. “This is not a suitable track, and we seen it today its nowhere to get away from anybody,” Franchitti said. “One small mistake from somebody and there’s a massive thing,”
Later, driver Oriol Servia said, “We had a bad feeling about this place.” Not surprisingly, Las Vegas Speedway president Chris Powell spoke out against the critiques, saying, “We as a speedway make sure we provide a venue that they come in and make an assessment when they’re ready to race—and they did that exact thing,” Powell said late Monday. “Our speedway conforms to every regulation that any sanctioning body has ever held it to, and we’re very proud of that.”
It’s hard to imagine how anyone can be “proud” at this moment. But it raises the question, In a dangerous sport, if drivers have concerns about their safety, what recourse do they have? Is there a reasonable set of checks and balances to make sure that drivers—can have a say? Writ large, this is why racing needs unions and why drivers need to be able to have a way to protect their lives in the face of unsafe tracks, bottom-line promoters and a corporate culture that sees the drivers’ fates too often as collateral damage. If death is going to be part of this sport, then the drivers should have as much say as possible when their lives hang in the balance. Just as union mines have a fraction of the workplace fatalities as non-union mines, a unionized IndyCar Series means a safer IndyCar Series. It might be difficult to imagine auto racing with the union label, but this isn’t about regionalism or politics. It’s about whether death will continue to find comfort in the world of motor sports.