peterwindsor.com

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Dan Wheldon – a sad loss

I didn’t know Dan Wheldon very well, but I heard a lot about him from his racing mates in the UK – guys with whom he grew up in karts – drivers like Anthony Davidson and Jenson Button – and from John Button (Jenson’s father).  Wheldon in those days was the man; he was the icon.   He was very fast, very passionate and very intense. Sadly, though, he missed the F1 boat.  When things started to hum for Jenson, Dan turned, instead, to the USA.

And he was very successful, winning 16 IndyCar races, including two Indy 500s (2005 and this year) and the IRL IndyCar series itself in 2005.

How did he come to be racing from the back of the grid on a car-filled, 1.5m tri-oval in Las Vegas yesterday?

Incredibly, Dan found himself without a drive at the end of 2010 when he was not retained by Panther Racing.   He was offered a one-off drive in Bryan Herta’s team for Indy – and won.  Then came the announcement from IndyCar that the final race of the season – at the very fast, banked and compact Las Vegas Motor Speedway – would feature a $5m prize (split 50-50 between the driver and a lucky raceday fan) if a championship outsider could win the race.  Names like Jacques Villeneuve, Scott Speed and Travis Pastrana were mentioned;  in the end, only Dan decided to go for it (with a Sam Schmidt team entry).  If he could win Indy then perhaps he could win Vegas.

I’m not making criticisms here, because the aftermath of any accident like this is not the time for blame.  And, quite plainly, the IndyCar Championship organizers were satisfied with what they were doing.   One should record, though, a steady rise of uncomfortable circumstances leading up to Sunday’s accident:

Only 33 cars annually start the Indy 500 race on the somewhat spacious, 2.5 mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  Many more attempt to qualify but the Indy organizers are intransigent:  33 is the maximum.  Vegas – a much smaller circuit with a lap time of around 20 seconds and an average speed of 220mph – is a very different proposition.  In addition to its short lap, it also features “progressive” banking – an increasing angle of gradient towards the top, designed to encourage side-by-side racing.  Wrote one US journalist before the Vegas finale:  “You do not want to miss this race.  It is going to be hair-raising, scary, fast, dangerous, risky, three-wide, four-wide, insane, nuts…I’m running out of adjectives but you get the picture.”

I visited the Vegas Speedway in 1996, shortly after it was opened.  The banking was conventional then but otherwise it was the same as it is now.  It was hot and it was scary.  I drove into the circuit – it was unofficial Friday – to the sound of a turbocharged Cosworth running absolutely flat around the lap.  Heat shimmers filled the Nevada desert.  Methanol stung the nostrils.  I had never seen anything so fast in my life.  It wasn’t just impressive; it was genuinely, physically frightening.

The driver that day was Arie Luyendyk – and I spoke to him about those laps when I bumped into him at Goodwood this year.  He just rolled his eyes at the memory…

This was the last race for the current batch of Indy cars – and so there were plenty of them on the ground.  Thirty-four starters.  And there, at the back of the grid – because this was one of the conditions for winning the $5m – was Dan Wheldon.

I was surprised that they did not start the race in single-file, with the cars spaced apart.  Instead, they started them side-by-side, closely-packed.  The entire field went by in about four seconds.  The aero seemed to suck the cars towards one another – from the side and from behind.  There were cars wherever you looked; there was no free road.  Down in Surrey, England, with the race but a few laps old, Anthony “Boyo” Hiett, who runs Double-R F3, and knew Dan from his Formula Ford/F3 testing days, turned to his wife and said, “This is the most dangerous motor race I’ve ever seen.  I can’t believe it’s happening…”

Slicing his way through the back-markers with no room for error, Dan turned in a lap at over 220mph.

Then, not long into the race – up ahead, in the pack – one car tapped another, flicked sideways and effectively became a road block-cum-launch pad.

Dan, like many drivers around him, was thereafter a passenger.  I guess the miracle is that no other driver was critically hurt.

Many talented drivers from all over the world turn to IndyCar racing if they are not provided with opportunities in F1.  One wonders about the impact this accident will have on their thinking.  The Indy 500 – where today the accidents in general seem to be more single-car than multi-car – is, well, what it is;  races like Vegas seem by contrast to be absurdly dangerous.  IndyCar currently weight their championship about 11-5 in favour of road courses but ovals continue to play a major part in their portfolio.  Ovals work for US crowds – as NASCAR has proved over the years.

Whatever, we’ve lost Dan.  Our thoughts and prayers go to his family and friends.

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8 thoughts on “Dan Wheldon – a sad loss

  1. I can’t agree more. I watched it live on (French) TV and I’ve never seen such a mess in open-wheel racing.

    I was so exciting before the race started as I’m a huge IndyCar fan and it had to be such a great show, in a great place. But 34 cars on the field was way too much for this track : too much cars too close. Very scary from the start…

    After 2 or 3 laps I just thought to myself this show was completely crazy since the whole field was so close, from the leader to the last car. I said to myself “if some guy hit the wall there’s gonna be a massive crash involving alot of cars !” Well, two minutes later it actually happened. Chaos.

  2. The back-story makes it even more tragic…it’s sad that we always need to lose someone in order for common sense to creep in.

  3. Such a sad loss and my thoughts go out to his family and friends.

    Thank you for the description of what happened. I did wonder how it happened and what was the lead up to it. I didn’t see the race and have chosen not to watch the events that lead to the tragedy on the news on you tube.

    Its also so sad that his championship and Indy 500 wins were not celebrated by the mainstream UK press.

  4. Beautifully written piece Peter. I haven’t seen any of the race apart from the crash, but you’ve painted the picture vividly and I agree with absolutely everything you’ve said. This is why you’re my favourite motor racing journalist.

  5. This is truly saddening and enraging. I woke up this morning, went down the kitchen, shared a few words with my English flatmate about F1 Korea, headed back to the room and this was the news over a picture of Indy cars flying through the air while being on fire.

    A truly carmageddon mayhem.

    I love oval racing, I always have. But I keep saying that oval tracks are strictly NOT for open-wheel cars, however impressive and exciting they seem to look.

    I know this is not a good time for this, but it was about to come. IndyCar has been struggling for long years now to make their races exciting… and double-file flying starts on oval tracks are just plain stupid in my opinion.

    Fontana is returning for next year, the fastest ever track in open-wheel racing and IndyCar has a new car that hasn’t been _really_ tested yet.

    The whole season was doomed by ridiculous accidents, heavily influenced by the forced “excitement improving” rules (Toronto being one prime example if I remember correctly).

    Drivers need to stand up and say: this is NOT right, this is NOT eligible.

    One can just pray that after such tragedy something good will come out in the end, as in Senna’s case.

    I keep praying…

  6. Agreed with everything you said there, to fast, to tight a track for Indycars and far to many cars on the track. My girlfriend said to me me after the race started wait to the commercials to have a coffee, I paused the sky box and said its ok because there is going to be a terrible accident and second now. Sad to say on my return and within 1 minutes of play back there was.

    Lets hope they learn from this and realise its a dangerous sport to have open wheelers do double file restarts and racing at tracks they have no place being at the show isn’t worth this.

  7. Nicely put Peter … What is of serious concern besides the physical safety aspects of the circuit, is the eligibility criteria and experience required by drivers in the IRL series to enter such events. A significant number of drivers in LV had very little experience at this level of racing … and when you increase the risk and complexity by introducing 34 cars onto a 1.5 mile circuit at 220+ mph … then something is bound to give.
    Seeing what happened yesterday and taking a close look at the experience level of the field, it makes you really appreciate all the hard work done by the likes of Jackie Stewart, Mosley, the FIA and other in increasing safety in F1 and ensuring a very high level of experience and competency before allowing drivers into the sport.
    The idea that a driver, with little experience in open wheel racing, can show up in IRL, sign up with a team for just one weekend, do 3.5 hours of practice on the LV circuit, and then be allowed to go side by side with 34 other cars at 220mph is pure incompetence and negligence on the part of the organizers … regardless of how daring the drivers wish to be.

  8. enrique soto on said:

    The Indy 500 has a tradition of 33 cars, its just a tradition. its not becasue the track is too small. Indy is wide and ive seen 2 wide in the corners with no problem. It is not that open wheel cars do not belong on oval circuits, they just dont belong on high banked ovals with big wings where you dont take your foot off the gas. Here is an interview with one of the drivers a few weeks ago he said “Claire wouldn’t be thrilled to see me do the 1.5-mile ovals,” he shrugs, “but I’m pretty good at it. I won the Las Vegas Champ Car race twice. Sure, for me, banked ovals don’t create good racing. It’s dangerous and it doesn’t allow good drivers to shine. All they show is that you’re as stupid as anyone else, as brave as anyone else and, if you win, it shows you have a faster car than anybody else. So, do I like them? No. Am I good at them? Sure – I’m as stupid as anybody else out there.”

    In my opinion indycars dont belong on 1.5 mile banked ovals. Keep places like Indy, michigan, fontana, go to phoenix and long pond pennsylvania where champ car was so succesfull. It wont happen, they will stay with the 1.5 mile death traps. Mario Andretti said there is no need for knee jerk reactions over and freak accident. How many times havent we seen indycars go into the fence? many times. Lets hope that they learn something from this. RIP Dan, you went flat out and you wont be forgotten

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