Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Austin Dillon
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Tony Stewart

Monday, October 17, 2011

A Brutal, Devastating Reminder

I have a saying I've repeated off-and-on over the last couple years: auto racing will never be 100 percent safe. The only way to ensure total safety in racing is to never get involved in it; never climb into a car, never pick up a wrench, never sit in the grandstands.

Safety in motorsports is a relative term; we can make motorsports safer, but we'll never make them safe. Ever. No energy-absorbing wall or crush-panel-lined car or stiffest head-and-neck-restraint device will ever fully protect drivers and those around them.

Sunday gave us all another painful reminder.

Dan Wheldon, two-time champion of the Indianapolis 500, was killed Sunday when he was involved in a scary, 15-car wreck early in the IZOD IndyCar Series season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. I won't provide a link to video or other images of the crash; if you want to see the wreck, you're on your own.

Wheldon, who won the Indy 500 again this past May after J.R. Hildebrand hit the Turn 4 wall on the last lap, was the 2005 IndyCar Series champion, and his 16 IndyCar wins are the fourth-most all-time. By all accounts, Wheldon was a pleasant man with a terrific family who everyone loved.

Now, the very sport he and those closest to him loved has taken him from us.

Wheldon knew the risks; he knew them every time he slipped into the cockpit. Every driver understands the risk involved, even if no one ever talks about it. Safety in motorsports is for other people -- the engineers and scientists, the sanctioning bodies responsible for putting on these races -- to figure out. Just tell the drivers the rules, and they'll follow along.

Part of auto racing's appeal is defying death. We watch these daredevils barrel into the turn at over 200 mph (or down the drag strip at almost 400 mph), not to watch them die, but to see them come out the other side as fit and healthy as they were before. There's a fine line between in-control and out-of-control in auto racing, and watching the drivers and teams straddle that line is part of the appeal.

The safety strides made in NASCAR -- and in other forms of motorsports -- over the past decade have been wonderful, and they're a large reason why we don't see more fatalities than we do. NASCAR hasn't had one on the national level since Dale Earnhardt in 2001; IndyCar's last fatality before Sunday was Paul Dana at Homestead in 2006. Aryton Senna was Formula One's last on-track fatality in 1994.

SAFER barriers, HANS devices, roof flaps, a new-generation NASCAR chassis with crush panels, a more centered driver's compartment and fire-extinguishing system attached to the fuel cell ... all of these innovations have helped. There will always be more work to do when it comes to making auto racing safer, but tremendous strides have been made.

Wheldon got airborne Sunday, as IndyCars so often do. His car erupted in flames, as did several others (Pippa Mann was being treated at a Las Vegas hospital after suffering a burn on her right hand). What I think sealed Wheldon's fate, though, was the fact that he hit the catchfence cockpit-first.

Carl Edwards also hit the catchfence cockpit-first in his Talladega wreck back in 2009, but unlike Wheldon, Edwards had a roof and a roll cage to protect him. Wheldon only had his helmet, exposing dangers specific to open-wheel racing.

IndyCar has been developing a new-generation race car to debut next season, a car that, among other things, is expected to be safer; ironically, Wheldon --who on Sunday morning signed a multi-year contract to replace Danica Patrick in the No. 7 car next season -- was the test driver the series used in developing the car.

Perhaps that is Wheldon's legacy, to leave the IZOD IndyCar Series safer than it was during his career. It's sad that Wheldon will never get to see his work come to fruition, but that's the way it goes, isn't it? The truly legendary and visionary among us never live long enough to see their efforts pay off.

NASCAR is fortunate that Jimmie Johnson emerged from his head-on wreck Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway without anything more than a limp and some soreness the next day. The safety advances are likely responsible for his impact not being more severe.

Still, Johnson is fortunate he walked away -- just like Elliott Sadler was fortunate after his Pocono wreck last season, just like David Ragan, David Reutimann and Denny Hamlin were after their respective accidents earlier this year at Watkins Glen.

Don't let the safety advancements we've seen over the years lull you into a false sense of security; the specter of death, or serious injury, is always there.

Wheldon's death serves as another stark reminder: as long as men and women slip on helmets and climb into race cars -- of any sort -- the possibility of tragedy is ever-present. The day death stops being a part of auto racing is the day there is no more auto racing.

No matter what form of motorsports you follow -- whether you have a clear preference or you follow anything with a motor -- a death on the track is always shocking and heartbreaking. It strikes me how shocking a driver's death is, even though we're always mindful of the potential and understand the risk; we know it can happen, but it's still a punch in the gut when it does.

The world of motorsports, not just IndyCar, is in mourning right now. Important questions need to be answered -- like whether IndyCars should be running on high-speed 1.5-mile ovals -- but this is not the time. Those debates can wait for another day.

Right now, let's remember Dan Wheldon for everything he did on the track, and how his passing affects us all off of it.

And let us never forget just how dangerous this sport we love truly is.