Sunday's race at Las Vegas was supposed to be a celebratory occasion; The crowning of a champion, Danica's farewell to IndyCar, and a chance at $5,000,000 dollars. However, after a 15 car crash on lap 10, nobody was celebrating. The concern immediately went to those involved in the crash, and those injured. Namely, Dan Wheldon. Wheldon was the only of the drivers airlifted to the hospital, and then came the agonizing two-plus hours of waiting for word on the two-time Indy 500 winner and previous champion.
A silence swept over the garage area and the race track. After hours of waiting, IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard broke the tragic news that Dan Wheldon had unfortunately passed away from "unsurvivable injuries."
The remaining 19 drivers decided to pay tribute to Dan by performing a 5 lap salute around the track in remembrance of their friend and colleague.
Over the years, Wheldon had matured into a very respected family man. He won the Indy 500 twice, as recently as this year when he passed JR Hildebrand on the last lap after Hildebrand struck the Turn 4 wall. Everyone had nothing but kind words to say about Dan. He was often characterized as one of the nicest and most popular drivers in the series. One thing is for certain, the auto racing world certainly lost one great man on Sunday. My thoughts, and the thoughts of the auto racing world are with his wife Susie and their two children.
Besides mourning the loss of Wheldon, IndyCar certainly has a dilemma on it's hands. Many fans, writers, and even drivers were critical with the decision to race a record-setting field of 34 cars on a 1.5 mile oval where there is no lifting off the throttle, speeds are regularly at 220-225 miles per hour, and nobody can really break away from the pack.
IndyCar might not be the same without ovals, but I believe they need to be more selective in what ovals they choose to race on. None of these 1.5-2 mile ovals designed for NASCAR. IndyCars shouldn't be racing on these type of tracks at much higher speeds. They need to bring back the 1 mile ovals like Loudon and Milwaukee and forgot about the high-speed ovals other than of course, Indianapolis. The smaller and flatter ovals like Loudon and Milwaukee allow the race to be much more in the hands of the driver. The tracks actually take skill to race at, unlike the pack racing that is a by-product of tracks like Vegas. As we've seen over the year, it doesn't take much for these cars to get airborne. Kenny Brack and Ryan Briscoe had memorable crashes at Texas and Chicagoland where both launched into the catchfence. Luckily, both are still with us today. Sadly, in Wheldon's case, that isn't the case primarily due to the fact that when his car launched into the air, it flipped over and he hit the catchfence cockpit side/helmet first.
So, what is IndyCar to do? If they really wish to race on the bigger ovals like this, they need to make a safer car. Ironically, Wheldon was a main tester of the new Dallara car that will be used in 2012 which is reportedly safer. Still, either IndyCar has to find a way to prevent these cars from racing in such huge packs at such high speeds, or they need to find a way to keep the cars from going airborne so easily. In Sunday's crash, 4 cars went airborne, including Wheldon. The other three were those of Will Power, Pippa Mann, and Townsend Bell.
If IndyCar can't address the current safety concerns with aerodynamic improvements, then they need to reduce the speed. Another thing that I would like to see added is a "pod" around the cockpit to protect the driver. That may factor into the extraction time if a terrible incident were to occur, but it will surely prevent the driver(s) from slamming into the wall/fence helmet first.