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Fatal crash raises questions about IndyCar's future

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Just as the IndyCar Series was gaining momentum, it has been dealt a major blow.

After a fiery 15-car crash Sunday at the season finale in Las Vegas that killed two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon, officials are likely to evaluate the design of the series' cars and the tracks it races on.

The tragedy happened just as the series is getting ready to unveil its 2012 schedule and roll out a new car.

“The safety record of [the IndyCar Series] has been good, but after this, they’ll be taking a long look at everything,” said Tim Frost, who runs a Chicago-based motorsports business consultancy. “They’ll be looking at this crash, not only because it involved a fatality, but because of the magnitude of it.”

IndyCar officials were not commenting Monday.

Sunday’s race marked the last race before a new chassis and engine formula are to be rolled out in 2012. It will be the first time the series has had new chassis and engine design since 2003—a time period considered an eternity in motorsports to go without an update.

While series officials have emphasized improved safety of the 2012 machine, racing marketers have long understood speed sells in the inherently dangerous sport.

“We have to go after speed records,” IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard told IBJ last week from Las Vegas. “I’ve been assured this [2012] car is fast.”

While some sports marketers think the series may have to change the way it markets itself, others caution against a radical change in direction.

“You can’t completely sanitize it or it’s not racing,” said Larry DeGaris, director of academic sports marketing programs at the University of Indianapolis.

With “IndyCar already in a state of flux,” DeGaris added, “it’s difficult to say what the impact of this event will be.”

DeGaris said the fatal crash could cause the casual sports fans that Bernard has sought so hard to lure to the series to turn away.

“For racing fans, they understand it’s part of the sport, but something like this certainly doesn’t draw new fans,” DeGaris said. “It won’t end the series, but it won’t help it grow. This is a terrible tragedy for the Wheldon family. And it’s a bad day for IndyCar.”

But Derek Daly, a former IndyCar and Formula One driver, thinks Sunday’s crash could help the series improve.

Daly, a motorsports broadcast analyst, said F1 became stronger after one of its biggest stars, Ayrton Senna, was killed in a 1994 race.

“After that incident, F1 completely changed the design of its cars and circuit,” said Daly, who was working at the 1994 F1 race as a television commentator. “Ayrton was one of its biggest stars, a three-time F1 champion. Despite that loss, F1 is stronger today than it was then. A big part of that has to do with the changes made in the wake of his accident.”

DeGaris also pointed out that NASCAR survived the death of one of its biggest stars, Dale Earnhardt Sr., who died at the 2001 Daytona 500.

“It caused the series to take a look at itself, to improve safety, and it moved on,” DeGaris said.

“As tragic as this accident is,” Daly added, “IndyCar has to stick to its business plan, learn what they can from this accident, and push forward. If this accident can improve the safety and improve this sport, I think Dan Wheldon would be proud to have that be part of his legacy.”

Several cars in Sunday’s accident went airborne, and there have long been concerns that the 2003 model was prone to doing so. IndyCar officials said that issue has been addressed in the 2012 model developed by Dallara Automobili—and tested by Wheldon.

Daly thinks if the sport is going to move forward, it’s important that the post-race analysis not devolve into finger-pointing. He’s concerned with how Bernard, who joined IndyCar as CEO at the beginning of the 2010 season, will handle the aftermath. Previously, Bernard was CEO of the Pro Bull Riders series.

“This could be Randy Bernard’s biggest challenge of his career,” Daly said. “The promotional machine the league has rolling right now has taken a body blow. I don’t think Randy has faced anything like this in the past.”

Making matters worse, the Las Vegas race—billed as the IndyCar Series World Championship—was Bernard’s first attempt to have the series promote and operate one of its own races.

That, Frost said, probably means the series will incur anywhere from a mid- to high-seven-figure financial loss since the race was canceled after 12 laps. Bernard told IBJ last week he expected a crowd of about 70,000 to attend and also expected to sell all 121 luxury suites for $22,000 to $35,000 each. It’s not clear if refunds will be requested from suite holders or race sponsors.

Bernard had heavily promoted the race, buying 3,200 TV and radio spots along with billboard ads in Las Vegas as well as spots in Indianapolis and other racing hotbeds. Part of the promotional campaign involved a $5 million challenge being offered to Wheldon if he could come from the back of the 34-car field to win the race. If he won, Wheldon was to split the prize with a fan, whose name was chosen from a drawing.

Daly said it’s important that Bernard seek—and get—the support of team owners and drivers as he steers the series forward. That migt not be easy in a sport that has often been fractured, including the war between the IndyCar Series and the former Champ Car series.

“It’s my hope, that everyone in the IndyCar community will come together at this time,” Daly said. “If ever there was a time for unity in this sport, this is it.”

 

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  • G-Daddy
    The big G-daddy elephant in the room is this: will there be sensible rules for Indycar drivers or more unrated promotions that the Indycar & Apex-Brasil executives seem to thrive on? The G-Daddy “unrated-culture” needs to be put in check; as a company it is run with a culture that brags about its ability to have "adult-unrated" material if you want it..they can host it. The culture of "no rules apply" is the elephant in the room that needs to be addressed. Get a rule book!
  • The second generation capwagon
    ...has quite a legacy as well.

    You are correct, IRL is history, a failure. But, underneath it all is still the remains of the IRL just covered by an old once successful name, Indycar. Now, even that name is tarnished...
  • Morons
    First of all their is no such thing as the "IRL", it is gone, just like Tony George. Second, the "IRL" did not invent the SAFER barrier. It was created by the University of Nebraska and then sponsored by the IRL as a knee jerk reaction to a poorly designed first generation crapwagon with a heavy rear end that was breaking drivers backs. Racing is dangerous, it is made more dangerous by changing rules to manufacture interest by rodeo cowboys and rabid follow the leader place fans. Randy wanted carnage and he got it.
    • He won
      Regardless of the business plan, stick with the commitment to split his winnings with a Fan from the random drawing. That would be a good PR response to this tragedy. Afterall, Dan Wheldon DID make it to the finish line first on that fateful October 16th day. He won the race.
    • hello
      hi jimmy johnson tell nascar to put a fence all the way around charlotte
    • open wheel allways very dangerous
      danger allways promoted in motorsports never seen any won from irl say league is very safe from fans and driver
    • And Marion County Gomeratti are giddy
      that Wheldon's death produced a 1.5 TV rating.
    • It was all planned and anticipated
      In an interview in June with the Globe and Mail newspaper, Mr. Bernard said the change to restarts would mean more "carnage and wrecks," adding that "danger will be an important element of the sport."
    • would not help
      jimmy johnson would have died saturday if it was not for tony george safer barrier american racing would have been safer if irl was broke or tight you never going to have completely safe race car brazilian stockcar had two dead reasonly in a race and they only run on road course that more than irl is the irl safer no that the nature of the beast beast will allways be out there in the motor world racing is dangerous is irl high level dangerous yes
    • dan wheldon r.i.p.
      these car are dangerous there are too leight safety cell are in middle the main iron rest of it just glass bumper wont help car are too low to ground the cars are more like a ram i think car will go airburn higher with that bumper my be wider rear wing and look like dp01 longer to the ground to engine wheel power and it will look like fender but it look more open wheel not like new car. at the back of current car when wheel touch act more like ram not like a hit at side like big f1 crash at indy down force rear wing will act like 2 layers and rear wing will be stronger i guest more like 3 layer to ground missing rear wing part to engine wheel power you get higher hight barrer there and rear wing is longer from the wheel you get good distance from impact and probly same weight as the new bumper and roller hoop my be second won in side lower as a back up on speed irl has lower speed so low its allmost not marketble any more there are more tracks faster than vegas homestead is way slower than vegas and irl driver died there and indy allways wil be on the schedule the fastest track safer car and fence is way to go this is irl first driver to die in a race many more drivers died at v8 supercars than the irl and they only do road course there f1 and american open wheel was never the same thing
    • Is it just me, or should Jimmie Johnson be called to the mat for his comments. For a minute I thought I was listening to Chief. To say that ovals or too dangerous for Indycars is ignorant at best. I will stand Indycars safety record against any other series.
    • Hmmm...
      Let's see, the accident began with cars that were running in the top 12, so the "large field" nonsense doesn't wash. They were running just as close at Kentucky and there were more accidents in the pits than on the track. Besides, guess which track has had the most driver fatalities over the years? Daytona - don't see them looking at shuttering that place. The only negligence here are the drivers who weren't looking beyond the nose of their car. There's a reason they call them "accidents" and not "intentionals".
    • daly
      I agree, was shocked with Daly's comments immediately blaming Pippa Mann before the facts were even sorted out. They need to get rid of him, his time has passed.
    • WELL DOES WHELDON'S ESTATE GET $5.0 million?
      Seems like he met the challenge and then some.

      RIP Dan Wheldon
    • Insurance
      Think any insurance companies are going to interested in covering the IndyCar Doubleheader Lottery at Texas Motor Speedway next year, let alone Las Vegas? Might be left with 3 ovals on the schedule, and that's if Fontana gets a pass because it's a littel bigger than Vegas & Texas.
    • Good thing you guys don't work homicide division
      When you bunch 34 open wheel cars, all flat on the throttle, on a small banked oval traveling at 225+ mph with only 0.001 second separating them....your right, what else would you expect? It's a given that someone is going to crash. OK, we got that already, and the fact every race driver accepts this risk.

      Nothing will change UNLESS the sanctioning sez so. AND, that is squarely where the responsibility for this type of racing exists and also the complete negligence for Mr. Wheldon's death.

      Gang, do you ever question why the worst accidents in AOW history have occurred at places like Atlanta, Chicagoland, Texas, Charlotte and Las Vegas? All under the sanction of the IRL?

      Open your eyes because the racing community has them wide open this time the truth is going to be brought to the surface. MANY racers are angry and are speaking out on this subject today.....this may very well be the end of this sport.

    • Done with D Daly
      Derrick Daly doesnt want there to be fingerpointing. That's laughable! Who was the first guy, make that the only guy fingerpointing Sunday on the air? DD was calling out rookies, notably Pippa Mann for their part in it. And he had the wrong car pegged as Wheldon's, saying the car she rear-ended was his and even speculated that mightve been the fatal blow. Tired of his act, back to F1 with ya DD.
      • Skippy Schmippy
        Give it a rest. I think we could come up with a list of 25 things that contributed to this horrific situation. This is a highly dangerous sport. Fortunately only every so often do we have to be reminded just how truly dangerous it is.
      • This is a tragedy that transceds sports. My thoughts and prayers are with Dan's family and the Indycar family. It is a tight knit community that will need time and prayer to heal.

        Racing like any sport is inherently dangerous. You push to the limits, to the extreme of human endurance. And when a tragedy befalls the sport, be it racing, football or basketball you mourn the loss and try to find out if things could be done differently. That is what Indycar will do.

        But you do not change the fundamentals of the sport. Because a football player dies from a hit, you do not make it two hand touch. Because a Jockey dies after a fall from a horse, you do not put them on mules. So as such, you look to making racing safer, but you still have to make it fast.

        The cars that launched appear to have done so because they hit tires. that is the definition of open wheel racing, be it Indycar or Sprint car. The new "bumpers" will help to limit these kind of instances. But even NASCAR cars go airborne.

        One thing that is lost in this accident and tragedy is what did not happen. You had 15 cars in a fiery, horrible wreck with several going airborne and you only had one fatality and a couple of relatively minor injuries. That is a testament to luck and the safety of the series.

        Godspeed Dan, we will miss you.
      • Article
        Schoettle,

        This article is like everything else you write. It lacks substance and reveals your lack of knowledge and passion about the sport. You take a bunch of quotes and string them together and make a prophecy about something you know nothing about. You really need to stop writing about IndyCar.
      • Skippy's nuts
        I agree with Dave; except for the bonus, there was nothing "sideshow" about it. Sure, there were more cars, but we knew going into this season that wherever they raced the finale you'd see more cars than usual with this chassis going out. Remember, too, the accident happened with cars that were in the top 15 at the time, not backmarkers.
      • Oh Skippy
        His stunt had nothing whatsoever to do with Wheldon's passing. C'mon. That wreck could have just as easily happened the same way @ Texas or Chicagoland, whether it was the finale or not.
      • Still numb
        I am still numb after this tragic, horrific accident. Rip, bud.

        Danica Patrick was right, that was "Hollywood gnarly."

        I love(d) oval tracks for Indy type cars but doubt that many high speed ovals will be on the schedule, moving forward.

        I say take the $5 million that he might havewon and give that to his wifeand kids. It won't bring him back, of course....
      • See ya Randy!
        IndyCar isn't the Pro Cowboy Horse Ridin' league. Randy's push for a season ending sideshow in Vegas contributed to the tragedy on the track yesterday.
        • Missed
          Dan will most certainly be missed by the fans and especially the racing community! This is a crazy and unfortunate loss. He was such an energetic and approachable person. However, having raced at lower levels and growing up around all kinds of racing this is an accepted risk! I would not think that a person who loved racing as much as Dan would want his passing to have a negative impact on the sport.

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