So, What Do We Do Now?

In the wake of the death of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon during the running of IndyCar’s recent event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, questions, accusations and rememberances overflow newspapers, internet sites and mainstream electronic media. All are meant to be positive in their attempt to right whatever went wrong on the track last Sunday, as well as to keep the memory of Wheldon, the well-liked driver, friend and family man, alive in everyone’s mind and heart.

There have been calls by prominent members of the racing community for major changes in the way open wheel racing is conducted. Some say 34 cars were too many for a 1.5 mile oval track. Others speculate that the type of banking and the high speeds at stock car tracks like Las Vegas had much to do with the 15-car crash-tracks some say aren’t suitable for open wheel competition. Racing in packs that doesn’t allow for separation of cars on the track is also given as a possible cause; giving drivers little time to react to what happens in front of them at 220+ mph.

Indy Car’s attempt to make the season-ending Vegas event more interesting by inviting drivers to compete who weren’t regular open wheel competitors, racing for a large monetary bonus, didn’t draw much serious interest, though names such as Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne and Travis Pastrana were talked about at one time as possible participants. Can you imagine the outcry if one of them had been hurt or killed in Sunday’s horrific crash? Some have rationalized Wheldon’s passing by saying he was an experienced veteran of open wheel racing who got caught up in a “perfect storm” situation that might not happen again for years. But imagine the criticism if Stewart or one of the others had been the victim.

Racing has seen this same outpouring of emotion and reaction occur after the deaths of three-time World’s Champion Ayrton Senna during a Formula 1 race at Imola back in 1994, and the fatal accident that took seven-time NASCAR Champion Dale Earnhardt from us near the finish of the 2001 Daytona 500.

After all the memorials were concluded and the careers of Senna and Earnhardt were celebrated, those in the F1 and NASCAR communities got to work to do all they could to make sure that those types of tragedies wouldn’t be repeated.

Flowers hanging on fences and drivers’ memorabilia flapping in the wind, put there by well-meaning fans, are temporary honors that soon fade and are eventually taken down.

Senna’s death brought safety measures to F1 that have had long term effects. No F1 driver has died since that May 1 day in Italy. Similarly, Earnhardt’s passing was a time of national mourning in the US, but no NASCAR Cup driver has died in the 917 races since that February 18th tragedy. However seven IndyCar/Champ Car open wheel deaths have now occurred in the past fifteen years.

HANS head and neck restraints, cockpit safety improvements and SAFER crash barriers have protected many drivers in all racing disciplines from injury or worse since these two drivers were killed. Long-term good has emerged from tragedy. But what now after Wheldon’s death-described as “unsurvivable”?

Wheldon hadn’t had a regular ride since his second Indianapolis victory back in May. But he had been busy along with Bryan Herta Autosport, testing the new Dallara IndyCar prior to its competition introduction in 2012. That job will be passed on to others as the car continues to be developed: a vehicle with a chassis described as having a safety cell to give drivers greater protection during crashes. The chassis will be named in honor of Wheldon and his testing efforts.

Much still needs to be done regarding driver qualifications to compete at this level, choice of tracks on which to compete, and numbers of cars that qualify for events-especially on ovals. Drivers who voiced their concerns and fears after the Vegas race need to speak up and be heard BEFORE race day.

All of this and more will go a long way to honor Wheldon now and for years to come. We will continue to remember him.

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