The Passing of a Racing Icon, By Gary Madsen
As of now, most people have heard the news of Dan Wheldon’s passing after the Indy car wreck, held at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway last Sunday, October 16th, 2011.
This racing facility had been completely redesigned since the last time the Indy type car had been driven on that track. It is shocking news to the entire racing world and community when we see firsthand what our sport, which we love and put all of our heart and soul into, is capable of.
When asked about this and what they should have done differently so this might not have happened, I think to myself about so many of the lessons in my life. Looking back and realizing how many things could have been changed to make a different and better outcome. We have all heard the saying “hind sight is 20/20.”
Already looking back at this racing tragedy, there are so many things that led up to this. The reconfiguration of this racetrack made it much better for the Sprint NASCAR series. Come to find out, it helped produce unsafe, higher speeds and closer racing of the Indy cars than anyone knew would come about. A year-end bonus purse was put together as a promotion of the event to try and lure professional racecar drivers from other racing series. Possibly the lack of collaboration between drivers, sanctioning bodies, track owners and operators was a factor, too.
In the earlier practicing sessions some of the drivers (including Dan Wheldon) were expressing concerns about the high speeds and the uncomfortable feeling while practicing next to so many cars. Looking back they all should have sat down and looked at possible solves to this issue When you have your veteran drivers talking about it, you need to listen to them – they are the ones you trust, and they will give the correct feedback needed to make such a decision.
When you come to a new style of racecars you are a rookie in that class. Just like at our local track, Rocky Mountain Raceway, when you move up to a higher, faster level of race car, there is a learning curve that takes time to adapt to the different way a race car handles. The tires are different; the car’s weight is different, also engine and power change. That bonus brought out even more rookies and more cars than had ever started at the speedway.
This year I was hired by Mike Eames at Rocky Mountain Raceway as their Director of Race Operations. Experiencing myself on the promotional business side of the race track, I was directly involved in promoting one particular race. As a racer, the more competition on the track, the more a race wins means to you! You know you have beaten some of the best in the particular field you are in. From a fan’s point of view, it is a lot more fun when there is a full field of cars. What makes a full field? A race like the one in Las Vegas brings into perspective that there can be too many. We have now learned that34 cars were probably too many – which a lot of people have already said. But when it comes down to reality, we must take action and learn from this very tragic accident.
We can learn a good lesson from this at our own racing facility and make sure we take a look at the particular classes running. We need to make sure the class is designed for the racetrack configuration. We need to know the limitation on the maximum number of cars to be started on the racetrack. As far as the rookies, they have always had to start at the rear of the field for their first three races. This year we have taken this under review, and we will start rookies in the back for even longer if management feels more time is in everyone’s best interest.
When do they decide that the speed of the cars have outgrown the racetrack? This debate has been going on for many years – the biggest example of this is the famed two tracks of Talladega Speedway and Daytona International Raceway. In the late 1980’s the stock cars were reaching speeds of 212 miles per hour making for some horrifying wrecks. They have been using the restrictor plate on the intake of the engines to slow the speeds down ever since. But is it the right solve? They took away the top speeds, but in turn it has made the races so tight that when they do have a wreck, it involves so many cars. Will they do something of the same with the Indy cars, or will it tighten up the pack even more, so that it will produce wrecks with many cars every time they race on particular tracks where they feel necessary to combat the problem?
Safety concern, I believe, in the last ten years has made so many advances in this sport. These advances have been brought about by accidents in the past. The sport is far safer than it was just ten years ago. Can it be safer? Absolutely! I can guarantee that organizations are looking at this particular accident and are making and designing safer conditions for the future of this sport, be it on the race cars or the race tracks themselves. We learn the most from the hardest mistakes, and hopefully we don’t make the same mistake twice.
When I used to buckle up into my race car, suited up with a two layer fire protective racing suit, racing shoes, race gloves, helmet, neck brace, 5 point safety harness, window net, in- car fire system and now with the HANS device, knowing that the best safety crew in the country’s short track were just seconds away, I felt a lot safer traveling 100 mph next to twenty other race cars on the track than I did when towing the race car to the track on our freeway system.
Racing is a very dangerous sport. We all know this as racers, and it can take a life when we least expect it. But would I hop in another car and put it to its limits, absolutely! I am a racer and it is a sport that is in your blood, forever!
Gary Madsen also has a Facebook page “Madsen Performance” has been involved in motorsports for the last 30 years