17 October 2011
Vegas: just what exactly happened?
IndyCar worked for months to make the 2011 season finale a fitting climax and affirmation of a series on the way back. No one could know it would end up being its darkest hour.
All season long, IndyCar had been working toward this moment: the season finale, the IZOD IndyCar Series World Championship - a celebration of the sport and a confirmation that IndyCar was finally on its way back after some difficult years with internal divisions, feuding and a collapse in popularity.
Utilising all his PR industry skills, IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard had done everything he could to put together the perfect show to attract fans back for the weekend, appropriately set in the glitziest showbiz city in the world - Las Vegas. There was a week of media activity that included a parade of IndyCars down the Strip, and the unveiling of a new trophy for the champion; he had been helped by the championship battle itself coming down to a knife-edge climax between Dario Franchitti and Will Power. There was even the final appearance in an IndyCar of Danica Patrick to add to the mix and grab the headlines one last time, before her move to NASCAR Nationwide Series next year.
And then there was the small matter of the $5m prize being offered to the 2011 Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon to split with a fan chosen through a sweepstake, should he be able to race through the field from the back row and manage to win the race. Although this had been a late substitution for the original plan of inviting non-series stars to 'come and have a go', it nonetheless caught the imagination - in no small part due to the popularity and charisma of Wheldon himself, who seemed to have achieved a new level of fame in the US following his dramatic second Indy 500 win in May.
"This is going to be an amazing show," Wheldon himself wrote in a blog for USA Today. "It will be pure entertainment. It's going to be a pack race, and you never know how that's going to turn out."
It was all set up perfectly for a historic event as the cars fired up at the "Drivers, start your engines" command given by professional skateboarding superstar Tony Hawk under a cloudless Nevada sky. No one could know how it would all end in just 15 minutes time.
It was not the best of beginnings - double-file starts have not been easy this season, nor have they been popular with the drivers who have complained at times that it would get someone killed. But even though the grid formation broke down and went three- or even four-wide through the first laps, it was remarkably incident-free.
That was despite all the fears and worries people had voiced about the suitability of the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway for modern open-wheel racing. Chief among the concerns was the way it allowed drivers to run flat-out at speeds of up to 225mph. Experts questioning IndyCar's return to LVMS had pointed out that there was a reason NASCAR had moved to introduce restrictor plates to its cars on superspeedways to stop speeds in excess of 200mph on ovals following the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. at Daytona in 2001.
"We all had a bad feeling about this place in particular just because of the high banking and how easy it was to go flat," said Oriol Servia. "And if you give us the opportunity, we are drivers, and we try to go to the front. We race each other hard because that's what we do."
Despite these concerns, the race was underway without a glitch: but then instead of calming down and settling into a rhythm, as would be expected at the beginning of a long 200-lap, 300-mile race, things started to get feverishly overheated and more akin to the final 20 laps of the race than the first.
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