The day after Dan Wheldon died in one of the most horrifying crashes in auto racing, the Las Vegas Motor Speedway track was the focus of criticism, from IndyCar drivers as well as those who drive the NASCAR circuit.
Drivers criticized the track, a steeply banked mile-and-a half oval they said is better suited to stock cars than open-wheel cars, and pointed out that speeds topping 220 mph made for a miniscule margin of error in a crowded field of 34 drivers of varying degrees of experience.
“Their average was 225? I've never been 225 mph in my life — and that's their average around an oval. They are brave men and women that drive those things,” Jimmie Johnson, NASCAR’s five-time champion, said of open-wheel racers. “There's very little crumple zone around the driver, it's an open cockpit and then you add open wheels — it's just creating situations to get the car off the ground at a high rate of speed. And you can't control the car when it's off the ground.”
Several cars, including Wheldon’s, became airborne in the massive 15-car pileup in which he was killed.
“I don't know how they can really do it. Myself, I have a lot of friends that race in that series, and I'd just rather see them on street circuits and road courses,” Johnson said. “No more ovals.”
James Hinchcliffe, who said his car started the chain-reaction crash, told The New York Times: “There’s zero margin for error, zero time to react.”
Wheldon, a British driver who was competing for a $5 million bonus to be split with a fan, had won the Indianapolis 500 in May, but had raced little this year and said he was “hitting 221 miles per hour on the backstretch” on Friday. Driver Adrian Fernandez spent time with Wheldon in his motor home before the race and said, “you could feel the fear.”
Danica Patrick worried that she’d look “like a wimp” if she eased up on he accelerator. “But you know what?” Patrick, who is switching to NASCAR, said. “I lifted [my foot] a little.”
Although the crash was fiery, Wheldon’s cause of death was listed by the Clark County coroner as blunt head trauma caused by his car’s impact with the catch fence. Three other drivers were injured in the crash and, by Monday, all were out of the hospital. Will Power was treated and released from University Medical Center on Sunday. Pippa Mann and J.R. Hildebrand were released Monday. Mann had surgery for a burn on her right pinkie finger and will require further surgery in two-to-three weeks. Hildebrand has a severely bruised sternum.
The track’s oval was built with what the Times describes as “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.”
No sport can be made entirely safe, particularly a sport like auto racing. Drivers accept the challenges and tragic possibilities of the sport they love.
“I drive race cars for a living; it's a dangerous thing,” Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose father died in a Daytona 500 crash, said (via USA Today). “It can never be safe enough, but I like my chances.”
Searching for answers: What caused the crash?
Video: Witnesses describe crash
Video: Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan on Wheldon’s death
Video: Drivers’ 5-lap tribute
Obit: The life of Dan Wheldon
Indy 500: Wheldon’s second win has wild finish