A Death Foretold

Three-time World Champion Ayrton Senna died in a freak accident at Imola, Italy, in 1994. Formula 1 rewrote its rule book, and no F1 drivers have been killed on the track since then.

Seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt died in a seemingly innocuous crash at Daytona in 2001. NASCAR overhauled its safety regulations, and no drivers have been killed in a top-tier stock-car race since then.

In October, reigning Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon died in a ghastly fifteen-car wreck at Las Vegas. He was the seventh — seventh — Indy-car driver to be killed since 1996. How many more coffins have to be filled before IndyCar officials take action?

Racing open-wheel, open-cockpit cars around ovals at speeds above 220 mph is inherently dangerous. Still, the knee-jerk calls to banish ovals from the IndyCar schedule are misplaced. They’re called Indy cars, after all, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has been the deadliest racetrack in the world over the past 100 years.

Although Indy cars now race primarily on road circuits and street courses, officials can’t turn their backs on ovals because they’re the heritage of Indy car racing. Nevertheless, it’s time to repudiate the strategy that’s guided the sport since the Indy Racing League was inaugurated in 1996.

The original concept behind the IRL was all ovals, all the time. This immediately ratcheted up the danger quotient. Finding new venues also meant venturing onto high-banked speedways designed for stock cars rather than Indy cars. And to ensure close racing, the IRL adopted a misguided formula for low horsepower and high downforce, which allows cars to run in giant packs, two and three abreast, often inches apart.

As a spectacle, this type of racing is tough to beat, which is why NASCAR continues to stage restrictor-plate races at Daytona and Talladega despite a parade of terrifying multicar accidents. But with every driver able to bomb through every corner flat out, pack races are more like gladiatorial combat than any recognizable form of motorsports.

“Pack racing is about big balls,” says Townsend Bell, who was unhurt in the melee that killed Wheldon and injured two other drivers. “It’s a high-speed, high-stakes game of chess and chicken.”

It’s also insane, and there’s no place for it in contemporary motorsports. This means recalibrating the relationship between power and grip to force drivers to drive their cars through corners. By happy coincidence, next year’s scheduled introduction of the all-new Dallara racing car (shown above, with Wheldon) will give IndyCar officials a chance to do just that. If they’re smart, they’ll also steer clear of the high-banked intermediate-length ovals that promote pack racing.

Drivers will still die. That’s the nature of the beast. But in years to come, Wheldon’s death may be remembered as the end of the bad old days of Indy-car racing.

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