On the Racing Death of Indy 500 Champion Dan Wheldon

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.

[Dave Zirin is the author of “The John Carlos Story” (Haymarket) and just made the new documentary “Not Just a Game.” Receive his column every week by emailing dave@edgeofsports.com. Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com.]

8 Reader Comments | Add a comment

On Unions and Real Regulation

The interesting thing about the unions is that, although hard to imagine, it wouldn't be unprecedented. NASCAR drivers attempted to unionize twice in the 60s but outside pressure and dissention from the drivers led to the unions being dissolved. However, an important event that many might not know about was that the first ever race at Talladega was boycotted by drivers because they believed that the track was unsafe. At the time, they formed the Professional Drivers Association, which was their second attempt at unionization. Wendell Scott, the most famous African American driver to this day in NASCAR, was a part of the boycott along with many famous drivers of the time.

Also important to note a couple of things relating to both Indycar and the track. In 2001, a race was cancelled at a similar track (Texas Motor Speedway) only after drivers complained of excessive G-Force and the possibility of blackouts. Also, it is notable that NASCAR driver Tony Stewart specifically criticized Las Vegas Motor Speedway renovations for making the track worse for racing at the expense of racing (He pointed out that the track promoter didn't know racing).

Also, in addition to a much needed union, in an ideal world there would be a sanctioning body completely separate from the Indycar and NASCAR bodies. The problem now and historically is that these entities, who are concerned more about profit-margins and making money than driver safety, are the sanctioning bodies. They answer to nobody and can make up the rules as they go along (An ironically parallel is the problems that our economy faces because Wall Street was told it could regulate itself in the 90s). Not sure how that would be done, but that should take place along with a union to ensure that there is a real mechanism to enforce safety rules.

They Did Cancel A Race At Texas Speedway...

...in 2001. Same kind of medium length 1.5 mile oval, very high 24 degree banking, which is even higher than the Vegas track, and the Champ Car drivers refused to do it. Whether or not they have a union now, they do have this precedent to look back to. I believe there is another race scheduled at that track, and I would be surprised if it isn't cancelled.

I've never seen open wheel cars so bunched up after 10 laps, as they were moments before the fatal crash that killed Wheldon. Open wheel cars are not meant to go around the course like a heard of wild horse, as they do with stock cars. They cannot make contact with each other. The 15 car crash as Vegas was started by a minor touch between two cars.

It's customary for the race to go on, but there was no way the race could go on given the safety concerns and the death that had just occurred. So the race was abandoned and the remaining 19 drivers did 5 lap salute to Wheldon. The last person to leave the course that day would have done open wheel racing a favor by pushing the button to detonate and destroy it. That race should have never been scheduled.

Dan Wheldon

Not a motorsports fan at all, but I have often wondered why drivers didnt have unions, or at least professional associations. Not to be too cynical, but it seems that this tragedy lays bare an essential, if ugly, truth: the interests of the employees (drivers) and the employer are diametrically opposed, even more so than in, say, a mine. Nobody is a spectator in a mine, the product is not the spectacle. But you can bet that there will be at least a few new viewers for the next race, if only out of a morbid curiosity. And new viewers=expanding market share.

A union for drivers

I've always been a supporter of labor unions, but always get so disgusted when they become corrupted.

My biggest fear for the drivers, should they organize, would be how to keep all the $$$ in the sport from corrupting.

Agreed

Completely agree with Rick. There is definitely a past precedent for drivers to stand on (not to mention the first Talladega race). Also agreed that races at banked ovals should not happen for open wheel cars, period. Too much speed and G-Force. This is one area where racing fans need to take note. All of those that complain that NASCAR is watered down because the cars are slowed down should remember that NASCAR could have likely had two deaths this year alone if those safety features were not in place.

As far as a union, what they should do is do a union that does not simply cover one series, but covers the multiple series (IndyCar and NASCAR at least, with potentially even larger independent series). There would be a precedent, as certain drivers have run both series and there are owners who run teams in both. I think actually the biggest challenge for the unions is the way that corporate sponsorship is intertwined with the team ownership. However, it can also be a bargaining chip because the drivers are linked to sponsors (Of course that brings up the contentious issue of the power of corporations in auto racing, but that's another story). Fans identify sponsors and drivers far more than team owners. Thus, if popular drivers boycotted a specific race in each series to make a point (Especially if it was timed across multiple series to be on a simultaneous weekend), that could be the jumpstart for real changes.

However

The big question is, "Do today's drivers have enough will and intestinal fortitude to actually stand up or are they merely corporate spokesman?" Many of them (at least in the NASCAR side) were racing gokarts at very young ages and did not come up with any frame of reference other than racing culture (Not to mention that they were very well off at a young age). I would almost feel better about the prospect of success if we had the drivers that were around in the 60s and 70s. All I have read indicates that they were far more independent minded and had stronger wills than today's drivers (Not to mention that many of them did not grow up wealthy). That's a question that only the drivers can really answer.

motor racing

I wonder how many deaths it will take to make changes.
I lived in the Isle of Man for a year many years ago, famous for its TT motor bike racing. This is racing on the Islands roads going round a 37 mile course. From 1907- 2009 there were 237 deaths during the practices and races. This year alone 4 riders and 3 spectators died. One would think the riders wouldn't want to go to the Island. Here is an example of a crash, amazingly the guy survived.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y07yt87lhEA

Racing (and comments on responses)

First, I would like to say that Weldon was at his peak ability wise perhaps, but surely not "at the peak of his power" as he could not get a drive in indycar. As he had committed to US open wheel racing in the late 90s when the racing was better and more competitive. Ironically, after Dan won Indy this year, he still couldn't find funding for a drive. This is the most fitting and glaring microcosm for the problem racing has. It needs a new Devine model.
I am well aware that racing isn't for everyone. Furthermore, single seater racing and oval racing has little real world relevance and is all show and, to be frank, I don't like oval racing at all and have found Indy racing unwatchable. That being said, as a racing fan, and an American, I would like to see the domestic series' succeed. Almost all rides in all series are bought one way or another with sponsorship or personal currency paid to a team to run a car on which said sponsor will put their advertisements. The dilemma is, how are domestic series' supposed to sustain themselves with ads on the side of circulating billboards when the few races that are televised have 24 minutes of commercials per hour. This is compounded by the fact that there is little or no regional consumer based industry to advertise in the smaller series in those series that aren't televised and only race in in the region from which they came. Perhaps you could address this topic in a blog post or magazine article. If you need any source materials or data I may be able to point you in the right direction.

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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