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Between the Lines: IndyCar crash should trigger safety changes

As a fan of multiple motor sports, I’ve often wondered what possesses those who willingly drive vehicles 200 miles per hour around hairpin turns and mile-long straightaways, at all times just one mistake from calamity.

It sounds crazy, looks frightening and, for the other 99.9 percent of the world, would be terrifying.

But that wonderment is — for me and, I believe, most racing fans — a form of admiration more than anything else. I envy the skill, the daring, the total commitment, including, sadly but compellingly, a willingness to get behind the wheel of a car knowing they might not come out alive.

That’s part of the deal the drivers make with themselves, their loved ones and, if they’re religious, their creators.

So after hearing the news that Dan Wheldon had died in an IndyCar race in Las Vegas last Sunday, I wasn’t too surprised, or offended, or even overly saddened. Death is a part of racing cars, even in 2011, I reasoned.

In fact, watching the video of the wreck, I wasn’t so much surprised that one driver had died, but that all of the other 14 involved had survived.

In its scope and calamity, the crash was the worst I’ve seen, and as Danica Patrick said, it looked like a scene out of Terminator: debris everywhere, cars on fire, medical units scrambling. 

However, as I began to read more about the crash and get the full context of what happened Sunday, it became evident that (unlike many others in racing) Wheldon’s death was entirely preventable, and my relative apathy started to morph into anger.

“It’s going to be a pack race, and you never know how that’s going to turn out,” Wheldon wrote in a USA Today blog 24 hours before his death. Sadly, it’s becoming clearer that the fatal conditions were all too apparent.

There were 34 cars (more than any other race this season and far too many), going 225 mph (far too fast) on a mile-and-a-half track (which many of the drivers had never raced on) — numbers that mixed a recipe for the disaster.

Overcrowding — caused by the small amount of space and too many drivers at that speed, in cars with an open cockpit — meant that even one small mistake, such as two cars bumping tires, could engulf 40 percent of the field into a massive, deadly fireball of a crash. And that’s exactly what happened.

The fact is, the IndyCar supremos should have known better, and, as many others have done, I have to question if they really had the drivers’ best interests in mind.

This isn’t a case of hindsight being 20/20. The potential for a massive, fatal wreck was abundantly clear all weekend as many observers and even drivers questioned the safety of the race. No doubt inquests should and will be made into the decision to allow this race under these conditions.

As a small condolence, good things could come out of this horrible incident. The success of safety regulations in Formula 1 and NASCAR over the past decade and a half — driven by the earth-shattering deaths of Ayrton Senna and Dale Earnhardt — have made those two competitions inherently safer while not drastically reducing the excitement level.

But these regulations have been largely ignored by IndyCar, almost universally considered the most dangerous motorsport in the world.

Maybe with the death of Wheldon, one of the most popular and well-liked drivers in the sport, standards will change and such negligence will never happen again.

But either way, I admit I’ll still watch. Such is the draw of the beast of fast cars, competition and danger.

Cameron Dunbar is a junior studying journalism and a sports writer for The Post. Send him your car talk at cd211209@ohiou.edu

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