It’s not often that we get to witness history as its being made. I believe we’ve been witness to history being made with the tragic 15-car accident that claimed the life of 2-time Indianapolis 500 champion, Dan Wheldon.
I was stunned to learn of the tragic death of Dan Wheldon during Sunday’s race in Las Vegas. It was the last race of the IndyCar series for 2011 and the race would have determined the series champion, with Dario Franchitti in the lead to get the title.
It appears that the IndyCar organization was attempting to inject some excitement into the race by encouraging side-by-side racing to give the fans something to cheer about during this last race of the season.
So, the organization changed the rules a bit to allow the cars to race 3 or 4 wide at speeds up to 225 miles per hour. That is an incredible challenge to the laws of physics. I watch a lot of NASCAR and when the cars get up to about 190 m.p.h. and the cars are 3 or 4-wide into a turn, bad things happen – frequently. There is just too much turbulence rushing between the cars, over the cars, or behind the cars and that disrupts the handling and makes them very unstable.
The open wheel IndyCar vehicles are even more sensitive. They depend so much more on stable airflow creating massive downforce, keeping the car pinned to the ground as it heads into turns at over 200 mp.h. Why would anyone think that allowing open wheel racecars to race 3 or 4 wide at incredibly high speeds is a good idea?
Tragically, it wasn’t.
The world of motorsports lost a really great driver and competitor on Sunday. Although Wheldon didn’t have full-time ride and was looking to get one, he just wanted to compete and keep showcasing his skills, probably thinking that eventually he would again find a full-time team and sponsor.
He was personable. Publicly reported stories spoke of how funny he was as a person. Just looking at him, it was clear that he was also very telegenic, and, combined with his English accent, gave great TV interviews.
For a time after he won his first Indianapolis 500 it appeared as if Wheldon could be the face of IndyCar and play the role of superstar for the organization. But, then came Danica fever. Danica Patrick absolutely dominated the attention for the IndyCar series, and the league quickly hung its marketing had on her, despite the small fact that she won only (drum roll please)… one race. A rain shortened race in Japan that most folks in the U.S. never saw.
Meanwhile, Wheldon won 2 Indy 500 races and other races in the IndyCar series. Media attention was so scarce for him at times that he took to wearing a t-shirt that said “I actually WON the Indy 500” as a funny yet poignant protest against the media love-fest that had set in for Danica Patrick. Yet Wheldon struggled to find a full-time ride as a 2-time champion (and died in pursuit of that full-time ride), while Danica rides her fame (and 1 win) to a full-time NASCAR gig, ditching IndyCar.
Where does IndyCar go from here? The series is in trouble. It was in trouble before this happened; this tragic accident timed with Danica’s announced departure just made a bad situation worse.
Attendance looked anemic. I’m guessing that television ratings were similar. Beginning with the open war between CART and IRL several years ago, the sport of American open wheel racing has never recovered, and the mending of fences with the creation of IndyCar has not improved that situation.
Wheldon’s death at the hands of what seems to have been an unnecessary “goosing” of competitive rules to create “excitement” for the fans may have just ended the future of IndyCar as a competitive sport.
The series has no recognizable superstar, no real unique product offering, and now, questionable decision-making by its leadership in an effort to add some pizzazz to the sport.
If IndyCar survives after this it will be a miracle. And, by the time they are able to again offer some form of competitive racing, no one will be around to pay attention.
R.I.P. Dan Wheldon.