Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 16, 2011

Worst Possible End To IndyCar’s Season

I had planned to write today about the conclusion of the American League Championship Series. An exciting series in which two games had gone to extra innings was decided with swift certainty when twelve consecutive Texas Rangers reached base in the bottom of the third inning of Game Six. It seemed like the unexpected blowout deserved comment; as did the record six home runs in a post-season series by the Rangers’ Nelson Cruz, and the grit and tenacity displayed throughout the series by a badly banged up Detroit Tigers team. There would probably have also been one last look back at Tiger manager Jim Leyland’s curious decision not to pinch run for Miguel Cabrera, perhaps the slowest player in the game, when Cabrera reached third base with one out in the bottom of the eighth of a tied Game Four. That was the plan. But sometimes, sadly, events intervene.

The hot sun shone brightly in an azure blue sky above Las Vegas Motor Speedway. It was the final stop for the open-wheeled IndyCar Series season, and the day was bright with promise and expectation. The season-long point’s race for the 2011 championship was on the line. Australian Will Power had closed in on three-time champion Dario Franchitti with a September win in a race run through the streets of Baltimore. Two weeks later Power claimed the points lead by finishing 2nd in Japan while Franchitti finished 8th. But in the next to last race of the season, Scotland’s Franchitti moved back in front by running 2nd at Kentucky Speedway. With just 18 points separating the two, both came to Las Vegas with a chance to claim the crown.

Also to be decided at IndyCar’s final 2011 race was the Rookie of the Year Award. James Hinchcliffe led JR Hildebrand by just 6 points in the standings with one race to go. The fact that both young men are North Americans, Hinchcliffe from Ontario and Hildebrand from California was surely welcome news to the sport’s executives who would dearly love to increase North American audiences.

Sunday was also to be the day on which IndyCar bid a fond farewell to Danica Patrick. The Series most recognizable driver and biggest draw, Patrick is moving to a full-time schedule in NASCAR’s Nationwide Series in 2012.

As if all of that weren’t enough to make for a special day, 33-year old Dan Wheldon was racing for a possible $5 million bonus. Series CEO Randy Bernard had offered the prize, to be split between the driver and one lucky fan, to anyone outside of the Series who was willing to race at Las Vegas. The catch was that the driver had to win the race after starting at the back of the field. England’s Wheldon was hardly an outsider, having won the Series championship in 2005 and taken the checkered flag at the Indianapolis 500 both that year and this past May. However, because he did not run a full-time IndyCar Series schedule this season, Wheldon was deemed eligible. So when the pace car left the track and the green flag fell at the steeply banked 1 ½ mile oval, there he was in his #77 car, last in a large field of 34 open-wheeled racers.

Because of its high banking in the curves, Las Vegas is a track where the IndyCars can run virtually flat-out. That means constant speeds of 220 miles per hour; a speed at which the 1,600 pound, 16-foot long, 3-foot high machines cover the length of a football field in less than a second. For twelve laps that is just what they did, delighting fans under that hot sun and impossibly blue, cloudless sky. But in those first laps both Franchitti and Patrick had radioed their pit crews with concerns about the aggressiveness of some drivers. Patrick went so far as to tell her crew that she was going to back off a bit until later in the race.

So it came, as if in response to the concerns of the two veterans. With cars racing three wide, the middle of the pack headed for the second turn at the start of lap 13. There was brief contact between two of the racers; but at those speeds brief can be more than enough to cause a deadly shift in momentum. As first one, then two cars turned sideways and lost speed, those behind had no time to react. In a matter of sickening seconds chassis piled into chassis, car parts started to fly through the air even as some of the racers where slammed into the SAFER barrier outer wall. First one car, then another, went airborne; flying over other racers before slamming back to earth. As fuel ignited flames and smoke filled the air even as cars were spun around or turned upside down.

In those first 12 laps Dan Wheldon had moved up ten places, from 34th to 24th. It should be clearly stated that he was in no way responsible for the wreck; rather he was but one of the many drivers who came upon the growing chaos in front of him with no chance to avoid it. Wheldon’s car was the second one to go airborne. As it did so, it lifted up and over the energy absorbing SAFER barrier. His car ablaze, Wheldon crashed open cockpit first into the high steel chain link catch fence that sits atop the outer wall. The fencing is designed, first and foremost, to protect spectators by repelling anything that hits it from the track; including a blazing IndyCar traveling close to 200 miles per hour.

In all 15 cars, nearly half the field were involved in the horrific crash. Three other drivers, including Will Power, were injured and transported by ground to the hospital for observation. Wheldon was airlifted there; but two hours later it fell to CEO Bernard to announce that IndyCar had lost a champion. With the Series final race of the season understandably cancelled, the remaining 19 cars drove a 5-lap tribute to their lost comrade. The pit crews and team members lined the front straight, grown men weeping without shame.

Motor racing in all its forms is inherently dangerous, and the fact that tragedies like Sunday’s don’t occur more often is a tribute to the skill of the drivers and the focus on safety in the design of both the cars and the tracks. But the moment can still come when no amount of skill and no level of design is enough. Dan Wheldon is survived by his wife; two sons aged two years, and seven months, his parents, and three siblings. He of course knew the danger; but neither that fact nor that he died doing what he loved are of any real solace to them.

The hot sun was still shining brightly over Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and the sky was still as blue as a robin’s egg, with nary a cloud in sight. But a day that began with so much promise and expectation had ended so very differently; because death decided to pay a call on the IndyCar Series.

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