GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Blog by Race Chaser Online Open Wheel Correspondent Joel Sebastianelli — Robert Laberge/Getty Images North America photo — I spent a lot of time this week thinking about Dan Wheldon.
I never had the privilege of knowing Dan. I lived too far away, I was too young, and the circumstances never aligned when I was a fan at the racetrack. But like so many in the IndyCar community, I still loved him.
We’re nearly one month away from the three year anniversary of his death, but I remember watching the IndyCar season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on October 16, 2011 from my home in Rhode Island as vividly as if it happened yesterday.
The weeks of grieving that followed were difficult. Whether you knew him personally or not, Dan meant something different to everybody.
To me, his death meant a harsh reminder that the sport I love is more than a game. As a lap-by-lap announcer at Seekonk Speedway, I saw glimpses of Dan in everyone I knew that strapped into a race car and put themselves at risk. That day, I lost one of my favorite drivers that I connected with through the long distance magic of television. But, as my passion for motor racing and my drive to succeed professionally in media continued, the harsh realization hit me that one day in the future, it won’t just be a familiar face from TV putting his or her life in danger on the track.
The person in that car will one day be a friend; someone who I talk with, laugh with, watch, and write about.
I’ve watched that fatal crash at Las Vegas more times than it sounds healthy to admit. In a strange way, it’s almost therapeutic. Re-watching it makes it real. The shock eventually evaporates, and it sinks in. It sinks in so far that it becomes a part of you that you’ll never forget, something so engrained in your psyche that it changes the way you look at everything.
Fellow drivers and pallbearers Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti, and Scott Dixon lost a brother. His wife, Susie Wheldon, lost her husband and the father of their children, Sebastian and Oliver — they lost their father. Even if the initial sting has worn off, the nightmare was and still is so real.
That’s why it’s so shocking to me that the proposal of cockpit canopies in IndyCar have been met with so much dissent and even fury from fans of open wheel racing.
One of the most ironic things about Dan Wheldon’s life is that his passion to improve the safety of the sport, which included his tireless work with the sleek and sturdy DW-12, could have actually saved him one year later. The current IndyCar chassis debuted the following season with pods on the rear wheels, akin to mud flaps designed to keep cars from launching into the air over the back of competitors.
Initially, fans moaned about the pods and the design of the car, but it has improved both the quality of action on the track and also the safety of the drivers. Dario Franchitti and Mikhail Aleshin each had painful flights into the fence at Houston and Fontana, but they each survived in a car built undeniably better than previous models.
Obviously, the risks in auto racing are high, and as the technology increases along with the speed, safety evolves too. From goggles to full face helmets, standard seatbelts to HANS devices, and solid concrete to SAFER Barriers, innovations in safety are just as abundant and more important as the changes to machinery under the body work.
IndyCar President of Operations and Competition Derrick Walker tipped his hand on the potential for canopies, a breakthrough for the safety of competitors.
“It is being considered; it’s been on my radar ever since I came to IndyCar,” Walker told Racer’s Marshall Pruett. “I’ve had discussions with Dallara about trying to design a partial canopy, not a fully enclosed, but a partial one that would serve as a deflector for debris that comes at the driver.”
This windshield of sorts is a sensible inclusion for open wheel racing. The NHRA adopted canopies two years ago in Top Fuel dragsters, and used canopies designed by the Indianapolis based company Aerodine. The tools are at IndyCar’s disposal to take the next logical step for driver safety.
Debris hurdling through the air is one of the most overlooked dangers to drivers — just ask James Hinchcliffe after being struck at the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis and suffering a concussion. Ask Formula One driver Felipe Massa, who was knocked unconscious and had his life threatened during qualifying for the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix after a spring pierced his visor and his skull near his left eye. Or, perhaps if you have the courage to ask about it and he has the courage to talk about it, you could inquire to 1964 Formula One World Champion John Surtees about how a canopy could have saved the life of his 18 year old son Henry, who was killed in a Formula Two crash at Brands Hatch in 2009 when his head was struck by a loose wheel.
Yet, some people, no doubt unaffected personally by tragedy in motorsports, don’t seem to get it. Maybe the artist renderings of closed cockpit cars spooked some fans, who didn’t read Walker’s comments about partial canopies carefully and assumed that the cars of the future would resemble a modified car or the Batmobile. Regardless, fans erupted in outrage in reply to Pruett’s article and across social media.
“This would be the last straw for me as a fan. No open cockpit = NASCAR,” replied one reader.
“If you take away all the danger it’s not racing anymore. These cars are as safe as they should be currently,” said another while sheltered behind the safety of his keyboard and computer.
Others chimed in with similar chides for the idea, saying the idea would extinguish their interest in the series as well as the series itself.
Tradition matters. It’s a central reason that storied races like the Indianapolis 500 and Monaco Grand Prix mean so much to drivers and fans alike. But, tradition should never supplant safety measures.
Open cockpits have been a staple of open wheel racing forever, but notice that this form of racing is called “open wheel.” A visor that protects a driver would not change the racing, the bravery required to pilot a car, or anything at all that is integral to the historical fabric of auto racing.
Fans saying with a straight face that racing is safe enough and shouldn’t get any safer just three years after the last fatal crash in IndyCar and less than one month removed from Mikhail Aleshin’s crash that resulted in myriad injuries that include fractured ribs, a concussion, a broken clavicle and other chest injuries would be a laughable assertion if it wasn’t so sad.
Electing to stop watching open wheel racing because of the introduction of canopies is equivalent to being a football fan in the 1950s and fighting the introduction of the facemask when the NFL recommended it for all players.
How dare they implement safety measures to protect players’ faces? If players are scared of dangers like concussions and disfigured faces, they shouldn’t play the game. With facemasks, it’s just not football anymore!
Long before canopies were considered on asphalt, unlimited hydroplane boating made closed cockpits mandatory in 1989. 14 drivers were killed in 34 years of open cockpit racing on the water, but once drivers were safely enclosed, only one driver has been killed since.
Clearly, canopies can dramatically improve safety while reducing the racing quality very little.
Ultimately, the drivers we love watching every week are the ones who put themselves at risk for our enjoyment. Theirs is the only opinion that matters, and if the drivers express desire for canopies, there should be no argument against it.
IndyCar fans tend to be tied closely to tradition. Understandably, they plea to add tracks like Road America and Phoenix back to the schedule, hope for a return to the days of glory before “the split,” and long for a return to the romanticized era of speed and unparalleled danger they recall from their youth.
Growing up a Dan Wheldon fan, I don’t dream about the 1960s, but I do dream about having Dan back.
I know that much is impossible, but at least with the addition of canopies, it is possible we’ll never have to relive a nightmare like that again.