On October 16, in the neverending waltz between man and machine, control and reckless abandon, speed and inertia, motorsport claimed its most recent life in Dan Wheldon, who died of injuries suffered while racing in an IndyCar race at Las Vegas. He was 33.
Wheldon made his mark in motorsport entirely during his time as a driver in the IndyCar series, winning the Indianapolis 500 and Indycar season championship in 2005. In 2007, his name entered the F1 sphere when he was offered a reserve driver role with the Sauber BMW team. Wheldon ultimately passed because he wasn’t assured the opportunity to drive regularly for Sauber, and he subseuqently earlier this year won the Indy 500 for the second time.
The last time a driver of his stature died in a race was in 2001 when the legendary Dale Earnhardt died of injuries suffered racing in the Daytona 500. Earnhardt’s death sparked a slew of safety changes to NASCAR, among them the proliferation of energy absorbing crash barriers, the use of the HANS(Head and Neck Safety) device, and more stringent standards on car design. At first some of the changes were met with resistance ironically from the drivers, but eventually they acknowledged that it was for their own benefit that the changes had to be made. NASCAR’s post-Earnhardt era response to improving safety mirrored F1’s response to the death of Ayrton Senna, and both racing leagues have flourished since, in large part because the improvements in safety allowed the respective leagues to focus on improving the entertainment quality of their product.
Wheldon’s death, unlike Senna’s and Earnhardt’s, can only be attributed to a freak chain of events that was practically impossible to avoid. IndyCar racing, with close quarters wheel to wheel racing at high speed oval tracks, makes it inherently more dangerous than F1 or NASCAR. In F1 the cars are similar to Indy cars with their open cockpit design, but the drivers and cars in F1 spend a significant amount of time on the track separated from each other by multiple car lengths, which makes the likelihood of contact with another car less frequent. In NASCAR the racing is similar to IndyCar, with cars traveling in close quarters at high speeds, but the “car” like design of NASCAR cars makes them less susceptible to losing control in the event of contact with another car, and the drivers are in completely enclosed in their cars, providing them additional protection in the event of a crash.
A few months ago I wrote about whether the racing in F1 was too safe, and if it was negatively affecting the entertainment product on track. The conclusion I came to was that safety was essential and necessary if motorsport wanted to progress as a viable sport in the future. Wheldon’s death affirms that auto racing is one of the most extreme sports in the world, and despite every effort to improve safety, danger will always be an inherent element in motorsport. Wheldon was a true racer, an adrenaline junkie, a thrill seeker. Sadly for him in his pursuit of speed and glory he made the ultimate sacrifice, and the harsh reality is he will not be the last to do so. But in the end he made his mark, and he will never be forgotten for as long as motorsport continues to live on.