Motorsport shocked by crash death in $5 million race

The excitement of Dan Wheldon's last IndyCar race turned to tragedy on Sunday as fifteen cars crashed, ending his life and sporting career. What's the right balance between thrills and safety?

He was in last place on the grid, and the field was crowded. Racing driver Dan Wheldon was looking forward to a pack race. 'It will be pure entertainment,' he blogged beforehand.

With 34 cars bunched up in the pack and all fighting to get into the lead, and with some of them travelling at around 220 miles per hour in pursuit of the $5 million prize money, the excitement of Sunday's IndyCar race in Las Vegas swiftly turned to tragedy.

On the 11th lap, the cars started touching, sending some flying into the air and slamming into the barriers. Fifteen were smashed up and Wheldon, the 33-year-old Briton, who had taken his car ten places forward from the back of the field before the accident, was pronounced dead after being airlifted to a nearby hospital.

Some experts have blamed the race organisers, saying that offering a special big money prize for the final race encouraged particularly reckless behaviour. Others said the cars were travelling at speeds that went beyond what was safe on such a track – even during practice sessions, some drivers had been concerned.

Former Formula 1 world champion Jody Scheckter, whose son Tomas was in the same race but escaped unhurt, said the disaster had redoubled his efforts to persuade him to quit IndyCar racing, which has been designed to be as exciting as possible for spectators.

'Hopefully this will knock some sense into him and realise there is more to life. It really isn't worth it,' he said.

As tributes to Wheldon poured in yesterday, fans sent messages of condolence to his wife and two young sons, one scarcely more than a baby.

Safe or sorry?

No one has been killed in Formula 1 motor racing since the Brazilian star Ayrton Senna in 1994, and the sport is very proud of improving safety. IndyCar had its most recent fatality in 2004. But with all motorsports there is a balance to be struck between the speed, danger and excitement, and the need to protect the racers and spectators from harm.

Senna explained why he kept on racing even after he developed a strong interest in improving safety on the track: 'The harder I push, the more I find within myself. I am always looking for the next step, a different world to go into, areas where I have not been before. It's lonely driving a Grand Prix car, but very absorbing. I have experienced new sensations and I want more. That is my excitement, my motivation.'

Is taking extreme risks a good way to push yourself to the limit, and beyond?

You Decide

  1. Is it ghoulish to watch a sport where the likelihood of crashes resulting in serious injury or death is so high?
  2. Does it change your assessment of the risks this particular driver was running to find out that he was the father of two very young children? What if he was a woman and a mother – would your attitude be different?

Activities

  1. One sports fan sent a Twitter message to the broadcast media saying: 'Hey networks: let's not show a replay of a crash 4,000 times where someone died, okay? Show some respect.' Do you think the media cover the deaths of public figures responsibly? Make an analysis of the reports and tributes about Wheldon.
  2. Do some research into the physics of cars travelling at speed, their reduced control and what happens at impact. Make a class presentation or write a short account of the safety implications of cars travelling at 220 mph.

Some People Say...

“Life-threatening sports are just plain stupid.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So this wasn't a Formula 1 race?
No. IndyCar racing is an American sport for professional drivers of single-seat open wheel cars. After Wheldon's death, several Formula 1 drivers criticised the safety record of this branch of the sport.
What's so risky?
Partly the speed makes for a tiny margin for error. Partly the tendency of cars to be racing along very close to each other in parallel formation. Add the aggression of drivers competing for cash prizes and it's a lethal cocktail in a sport that has been trying to put on a good spectacle to fight falling television audience ratings.
Will this death change anything?
Possibly. After the accident, several voices in the world of professional car racing were raised to criticise allowing extreme speeds on this sort of track.

Word Watch

Grid
Each driver is given a starting position according to lap times during qualifying sessions. Number one slot is called pole position.
Pack race
When the competitors are bunched up as they fight to get out in front.
Formula 1
The season of races known as Grands Prix, an international competition, in which all teams of cars must obey the 'formula' or rules. Europe-based but expanding to other continents. A sport dating back to the 1920s. First world championship held at Silverstone in 1950.
IndyCar
American motor racing, named after the most famous race, the Indianapolis 500. The Las Vegas race was the finale to the sport's season.

Subjects

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