This year’s Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon was trying to work his way through the closely-packed field to win a $5 million prize offered to him by IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard when he was involved in the terrible multi-car accident that claimed his life. Wheldon’s car flew into the air and crashed upside-down into the wall amid a massive collision that took out fifteen cars.
Today’s restrictor plate-like Indy cars run flat-out around tracks like Las Vegas and everyone was worried about the possibility of ‘The Big One’ occurring, particularly with a field of 34 cars, seven or eight more than usual. Running two-wide and sometimes three and four-wide the inevitable happened and everyone’s worst fears came true in horrifying circumstances.
The race was red-flagged and then cancelled after the sad news of Wheldon’s death. Championship contender Will Power was among those involved in the crash, getting up-side down amid the mayhem. Power’s demise meant Dario Franchitti won the IndyCar championship for the third year in a row.
Franchitti has long been a critic of racing contemporary Indy cars on 1.5-mile high-banked ovals like Las Vegas. We have seen big accidents on these tracks before with both Kenny Brack and Davey Hamilton suffering serious injuries in giant shunts some years ago at the Texas Motor Speedway.
At Las Vegas on Sunday Franchitti jumped into the high groove at the start of the race, trying to make ground from his midfield starting position. But he soon adopted a more defensive style.
“Within five laps people were starting to do crazy stuff,” Franchitti said. “That early in the race I wanted no part of that stuff. I love hard racing, but that to me is not really what it’s about. We said before we tested here that this is not a suitable track (for Indycars) and we’ve seen why today. You can’t get away from anybody. You’re just stuck there and people get frustrated and go four-wide and you saw what happened. One small mistake from somebody and there’s a massive crash.”
“It’s unfortunate that early on in the race they’ve got to be racing so close that we have what they call ‘The Big One’,” added Roger Penske. “You always worry about those on these mile and a half tracks at these speeds with this many cars.” Former Indy 500 winner Eddie Cheever now works as a commentator for ABC television. “There’s just too many cars on too easy a track to drive on,” he observed.
Tony Kanaan qualified on pole at 222.708 mph and led the race until it was stopped. “On a track like this with the cars we have, it’s a potential for disaster,” Kanaan said. “Yes, sometimes you get excited out there but when we’re racing so close one mistake can take fifteen people out. And that’s what happened there. I’ve never seen such a mess in my entire career on the racetrack.
“I think we need to rethink about the way we’re doing things on the racetrack sometimes because it’s not a good feeling. Everybody’s looking for a win. I know this is a competition and you’ve got to win races and you have to perform, but at the end of the day it’s just a race. We have to take care of each other. We’re playing with life here. What happened this afternoon proves that we should give each other a little bit more room.”
“Because of the nature of the track, the banking and the amount of grip, there’s a lot of racing three-wide,” said Alex Tagliani. “You’re in a stack and nobody can go anywhere with the downforce we have. Nobody can break away and you’re just running around in a group. So when something goes wrong you’re just a passenger. Everybody was concerned about that and we have the proof now. The only thing we can do is try to drive with our heads on our shoulders and respect each other out there.”
Observed Ryan Hunter-Reay: “We knew coming into this race racing at speeds of 220 mph that this would be a tough one to get done without a big wreck. It only takes one small mistake to create a very big problem, like we’ve seen here. We need to take a different approach. We need to try to take care of ourselves as drivers.”
Randy Bernard and IndyCar will be asking themselves many questions this week. Meanwhile Motor Sport extends our deepest condolences to Dan Wheldon’s wife Suzy in America and his father and family in the UK.