Wheldon tragedy: How could it happen?

The race car of driver Will Power hits the wall as flames from British driver Dan Wheldon's car...

The race car of driver Will Power hits the wall as flames from British driver Dan Wheldon's car burst (at left) during the IZOD IndyCar World Championship race at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Las Vegas, Nevada October 16, 2011. (REUTERS/Barry Ambrose)

DEAN McNULTY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:32 PM ET

The blame game over the tragic death of Dan Wheldon on Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway has already begun.

And so it should.

Wheldon, a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and former IZOD IndyCar Series champion, was, at 33-years-old, in the prime for his professional racing life.

He leaves his wife, Susie, and two young sons, two-year-old Sebastian and seven-month old Oliver.

For their sakes alone answers must be forthcoming — and soon — about the hows and whys of such a horrendous accident.

The first thing to look at is Las Vegas Motor Speedway itself.

LVMS has no obvious fatal flaws that led to Wheldon’s death. The one and a half mile banked oval is, in fact, a state of the art racing facility.

But that track was designed and built for NASCAR stock car racing, as was Texas Motor Speedway and Kentucky Speedway, the other pair of mile and a half ovals that IndyCar visits each season.

And complaints from open wheel drivers about the dangers of racing on such ovals didn’t just arrive on the scene with the Wheldon tragedy.

Ten years ago, in 2001, the then Champ Car World Series was scheduled to race the Firehawk 600 at the Texas track when, after just two practices, drivers staged what amounted to a strike, saying the high-speed, banked oval just wasn’t safe after cars were hitting speeds in excess of 230 m.p.h. on the glass-smooth racing surface.

The race was cancelled and many labelled the drivers as cowards.

In retrospect that decision by those drivers may have saved a life on that day.

I remember interviewing Canada’s Patrick Carpentier in the Texas aftermath. He told me that after just three laps around the track he was becoming so disoriented that when he got out of his Player’s Championship Racing car he fell over as a result of vertigo caused by the combination of high speed and G-forces on his body.

A total of 21 of the 25 drivers on the track reported similar symptoms.

One has to remember there is a huge difference between a 3,400-pound, full-bodied steel stock car hitting speeds of 200 m.p.h. at LVMS or Texas and the 1,525-pound carbon-fibre machines of IndyCar reaching more than 220 m.p.h. on the same track.

The problem facing IndyCar bosses, however, is that if they decide to no longer race on these super fast ovals what is the alternative?

Some have suggested that the series abandon ovals completely and become a street-and-road-course-only circuit with the exception of the two and a half mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

This is nonsense. IndyCar racing earned its pedigree by selling itself and its drivers as the most diverse on the planet.

The racing world already as a road-and-street-course-only series in Formula One and NASCAR Sprint Cup is, but for two races a season, an all-oval series.

Besides, no one can argue that under the right circumstances the IndyCar oval races are among the most exciting in all of motor racing.

This season’s twin races at Texas were riveting from start to finish. When done right, open wheel racing on these tracks is far more exciting than NASCAR.

But, and it is a big but, the line between exciting and dangerous is paper thin.

Alex Tagliani said at Las Vegas that he loves oval racing, but that it must be tempered with safety considerations.

He said the new IndyCar Dallara chassis that Wheldon was testing and that will be introduced at the 2012 season opening race at St. Petersburg was designed to include upgraded safety features from the current nine-year-old model.

It was also designed — with a new engine package — to be faster than the current car.

Tagliani said drivers, team owners, race promoters and series bosses have to sit down a talk about how to keep these cars on the track.

His thought is to re-visit the aero package on the new car to avoid what caused Wheldon’s car to fly into the air after hitting the rear wheel of Paul Tracy’s car at Las Vegas.

There are other things that have to be looked at in the wake of this disaster, but Tagliani’s suggestion is at least a good place to start.

dean.mcnulty@sunmedia.ca


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