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Future Uncertain

Dan Wheldon’s Death Prompts Some Soul Searching For INDYCAR

Dan Wheldon`s death in Las Vegas prompted an outpouring of grief and sympathy within the larger motorsports community. Photo by IMS Photo

Oh what might have been.

As time passes, surely somewhere amid all of the grief and sadness INDYCAR President and CEO Randy Bernard has felt regarding the passing of IZOD IndyCar Series driver Dan Wheldon in a horrific crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on October 16, there is a part of him that can only wonder, what if?

What if the race had gone off as planned, with the season-long battle for the driver’s championship between Dario Franchitti and Will Power settled in the shadow of Sin City on US network television in front of a decent-sized crowd on a superfast 1.5 mile oval?

What if Wheldon, who was competing for a shot at a $5 million (US) prize as part of a publicity stunt cooked up by Bernard, had actually managed to race from the back to the front and won the race, or at least contended for the win?

What if the points battle between Franchitti and Power came down to the final lap?

The lone no.77 was one of the many signs that marked Wheldon`s passing at Las Vegas. Photo by IMS PhotoWhat if Danica Patrick, who had looked pretty racy in practice and qualifying, had been able to notch her second career win in her final Indy Car race before she moves to NASCAR full time next year?

The stage had been set in Vegas, with the series pulling out all the stops for the first ever IZOD IndyCar World Championships, with a week of parties, driver appearances and even a parade lap of the entire field down the strip just days before the race. The event seemed to be garnering a palpable buzz with the storylines that Bernard and his team had worked so diligently to craft.

Everything seemed to be coming up roses on race day too, with sunny skies, a respectable if not spectacularly large crowd, no Sprint Cup race to compete against (thanks to their event the previous night in Charlotte), and coveted air time on network television thanks to ABC.

It was all going so well, and when the green flag dropped just before 4 pm eastern time, Bernard had plenty of reason to flash his big, toothy smile.

And then the race hit lap 12 and all of those good feelings and positive vibes stopped in an instant.

A 15-car, chain reaction accident sent cars spinning and careening in all directions and some, including Wheldon’s, went airborne.

Wheldon’s no.77 car got into the back of another car and was launched into the metal debris fencing above the wall. His car disintegrated as it ground along the fence, cockpit facing out, before falling back to the track, shredded and almost completely unrecognizable.

INDYCAR President and CEO Randy Bernard. Photo by IMS PhotoMore than two hours later, an ashen-faced Bernard confirmed that Wheldon had passed away after suffering unsurvivable injuries during the crash.

Wheldon was an engaging, fun loving and talented Brit who, at 33, was a two-time Indianapolis 500 champion (his second victory came this past May) and had signed on to return to Michael Andretti’s team in 2012 on the morning of the Vegas race (with whom he won his first Indianapolis 500 and Series drivers’ title in 2005). He was one of IndyCar’s true star personas and a favourite amongst Indy car fans and competitors alike.

The reaction swept through the paddock like a tsunami of overwhelming grief as drivers, particularly Wheldon’s old Andretti teammates Franchitti and Tony Kanaan, wept openly in the pit lane as they prepared to perform a five-lap tribute to their fallen friend.

Whatever life had existed at the track was gone, and Bernard, sensing his drivers were in no mood to finish the race, cancelled the event without hesitation. No one was prepared to race after the horrific crash that had just claimed Wheldon.

Power was caught up in the wreck, which enabled Franchitti to win his fourth drivers’ championship (third in succession), but no one was in the mood to celebrate so the Series cancelled the year-end banquet which had been planned for the following day.

In the wake of the accident, the entire sport was grieving, to the point that the Series went into a self-imposed radio silence for three days afterwards, before Bernard finally spoke in interview with USA Today.

In that interview, he spoke primarily about a “need for answers”, after Wheldon’s death. To that end, INDYCAR launched an investigation into the crash that was ongoing at the time of this writing. Originally, it was reported that the FIA, the global motorsport governing body, and the Automobile Competition Committee of the United States (ACCUS) would assist INDYCAR with the investigation, but it has since been clarified that neither organization will be formally involved. How much either has contributed to the investigation on an informal basis is unclear.

United in grief: the IZOD IndyCar Series paddock at Las Vegas on October 16. Photo by IMS PhotoWhat is also unclear is the future of the sport. Although Indy car racing has been building some gradual momentum in the three and a half years (four seasons) since the sport was unified under the INDYCAR banner, and much of it attributable to Bernard himself, Wheldon’s death has slowed the sport’s progress down.

Much of the discussion regading Indy car racing now seems to focus primarily on Wheldon’s death and what needs to be done to ‘fix the sport’, that instantly (in the minds of some) become so unsafe that it can’t continue without radical changes to its safety protocols.

Everything seems to be on the table, from changes to the cars to better debris fencing and higher walls, to the tracks that Indy cars should (and should not) be racing on.

No official recommendations have been made with regard to safety improvements, but INDYCAR’s investigation will likely include suggestions that will address driver safety.

While so much of the fan and media interest has been focused on Wheldon’s death and its aftermath, the sport’s more existential concerns continue to simmer under the surface.

The 2012 schedule had yet to be released at this writing, but the general shape of it suggests that the sport’s oval roots are slowly being swept away in favour of street and road course racing. Bernard gamely added races at short ovals in Milwaukee and New Hampshire to the 2011 calendar, in an attempt to not only balance the schedule, but also to appease the shrinking core of oval traditionalists who fear road and streets courses are taking over.

Both races were disappointments for similar reasons – lacklustre promotion, light media attention and small crowds. Bernard was openly disappointed with the Milwaukee race in particular, given its 100- plus year association with Indy car racing and the fact that it hadn’t been that long between races at the facility (2009), but he was quick to express his disappointment with the event.

IndyCar drivers performed a 5-lap tribute to honour Wheldon in Las Vegas. Photo by IMS PhotoNew Hampshire, a venue that hadn’t held an Indy car race since 1998, was viewed as more of a gamble given the long absence between races and the popularity of NASCAR in the region. Despite these obstacles, Gerry Gappens, the Indiana-bred General Manager of New Hampshire Motor Speedway was determined to get an Indy car date and lobbied hard to get one. His efforts prevailed, but the event barely made a ripple in the local media and the turnout was small on race day (fewer than 20,000 attendees). Poor weather throughout the weekend didn’t help, but it alone cannot be blamed for lack of interest in the event. Neither Milwaukee nor New Hampshire will return in 2012.

Unfortunately, the problems Indy car racing has encountered at Milwaukee and New Hampshire aren’t unique. Kentucky Speedway, which has hosted some of the most thrilling oval racing on the Indy car circuit over the past few seasons – Ed Carpenter’s 0.0098 second victory over Franchitti this year was the closest Indy car finish ever at the 1.5 mile track – but declining interest has put the event in jeopardy going forward. INDYCAR hadn’t confirmed at press time that it won’t return to Kentucky, but it’s not expected to be on the 2012 schedule.

Fan interest continues to remain strong at tracks like Iowa, Texas and, of course, Indianapolis, but it’s become questionable at every other oval.

Adding to Bernard’s quest in finding suitable ovals to balance the schedule is departure of the Honda’s Twin Ring Motegi oval (1.5 mile), an event that was popular with both fans and drivers.

The track held an Indy car event every year since 1998 (except for this year when it was moved to the 2.983 mile road course due to damage done to the oval by the tsunami and earthquake that struck Japan in March), but Honda and INDYCAR decided to part ways after this year.

The departure from Japan doesn’t mean IndyCar is no longer interested in racing in the Far East, however – far from it. In November, the Series’ first foray to China was confirmed with a race set for next August on a 6.23 kilometre (3.87 mile) temporary street circuit in the city of Qingdao in the country’s east, near to the Yellow Sea.

As for the rest of the schedule, it won’t be finalized until after IndyCar’s investigation into the crash at Las Vegas is complete. The Series has indicated through its Vice-President of Technology Will Phillips that it is working with several team engineers to address the issues, such as pack racing, that are inherent with running Indy cars on 1.5 mile tracks. It’s unknown what changes will be made to the new DW12 Dallara (named in honour of Wheldon who performed the early rounds of testing) as a result.

Fans turned out in droves to honour Wheldon`s memory at the public memorial service in Indianapolis. Photo by IMS Photo.Amid the uncertainty surrounding the schedule and its long-term future on ovals, the Series and its teams press forward. Only a handful of teams at this writing had yet to confirm their engine supplier for next season and, much to the relief of Bernard, Lotus is beginning to catch up to Chevrolet and Honda with its program – three Lotus teams were confirmed in mid-November, including two that will serve as proper works teams (HVM Racing and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing). Bryan Herta Autosport and the fledgling MSR Indy team (confirmed in October), led by Grand-Am owner and former IndyCar driver Michael Shank will also utilize Lotus power in 2012.

On the driver front, most teams are working to finalize their driver lineups. Team Penske has announced that Ryan Briscoe, Helio Castroneves and Will Power will return for a third full season, while Chip Ganassi Racing has confirmed Charlie Kimball for a second campaign and Panther Racing has picked up its two-year option on impressive rookie J.R. Hildebrand.

With a long development path for new cars and engines, most teams will likely have their driver rosters complete on or around December 15 when the first round of chassis deliveries begin so they can hit the ground running when testing begins in January.

As the days and months roll by and the season opener at St. Petersburg in late March draws nearer, the challenges of a new season will focus the attention of those within the sport and those that care about it.

What happened in Las Vegas will fade, and while it might seem like business as usual on the surface, the sport will re-emerge irrevocably changed.

Hopefully for the better.

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