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.