President, Tracy defend LVMS; greats defend oval racing
19 October 2011
While Dan Wheldon's death in Sunday's IndyCar Series finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway has led to calls to ban oval racing for open-wheel cars, or abandon the desert oval as unsuitable, a few more reasoned voices have piped up in defence of both.
While LVMS president Chris Powell is naturally going to be biased towards his facility, his claims that the banked track on which Wheldon was fatally involved in a 15-car pile-up met regulations were backed up by none other than Canadian open-wheel veteran Paul Tracy.
The 1.5-mile LVMS oval was hosting its first IndyCar event in eleven years when 34 cars took to the track for Sunday's finale. The event had been targeted as a major send-off for the current Dallara and the single engine era, and had been preceded by all manner of events as IndyCar celebrated its return to Sin City.
Questions were raised about 34 cars being allowed to take the start, especially with a diverse range of experience throughout the field, but Powell insists that there had been no concerns expressed by series organisers, despite the field being bigger than that traditionally allowed at Indianapolis, which is a full mile longer.
"We heard no qualms whatsoever from anyone at IndyCar," the president confirmed, "We, as a speedway, make sure we provide a venue that they come in and make an assessment when they're ready to race, and they did that exact thing. Our speedway conforms to every regulation that any sanctioning body has ever held it to, and we're very proud of that."
Tracy, meanwhile, refused to blame LVMS for Wheldon's death, although he did express reservations about the catch fencing employed at the majority of oval circuits used by the IndyCar Series. In recent years, Kenny Brack, Ryan Briscoe and Mike Conway have all had cars ripped to pieces by contact with the fencing that tops the concrete walls and SAFER barriers at ovals, but all lived to tell the tale, underlining the fact that Wheldon was unfortunate in the way in which he hit the protection.
“[LVMS] is a world class facility, and it is no different to any other racing track around the world,” the Canadian pointed out, “But what has really stayed the same is the catch fencing along the walls. That has stayed the same over the past 100 years.”
Five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, a good friend of Wheldon's despite their different disciplines, suggested that it was now time for open-wheel racing to abandon the ovals and concentrate on road and street courses - a call that met with mixed opposition around the motorsport world. Tracy, for one, sees no reason for the sport to abandon its roots, but pointed out that the cars need to be made more suitable for that sort of venue.
“They spec the cars to where they want the cars to run a bit more in the pack like NASCAR, and these cars are not designed to run and bang wheels with each other at 220mph,” he told the Toronto Sun newspaper, “Our wheels are exposed, NASCAR's are closed body cars like street cars [and], once you have two [IndyCars] touch each other, you don't have any control of what can happen.”
The new-for-2012 Dallara IndyCar has greater protection for the car's wheels, which should help to prevent the sort of carnage witnessed on Sunday, although the driver charged with the test and development programme, ironically, was the one to pay the highest price in Vegas.
Johnson's claims were also met with opposition from two grizzled open-wheel veterans, who firmly believe that oval racing has its place on the IndyCar schedule.
"I don't think Jimmie Johnson knows what he's talking about," AJ Foyt told the Indianapolis Star newspaper, " He's never drove one, and he's pretty stupid to make a statement like that. You could say the same about stock cars - I've drove both and I've been hurt real bad in both. IndyCars are probably 1000 per cent safer than when I drove. You always hope that you can make the cars 100 per cent safe, but this ain't the last time things like this happen.
Mario Andretti, meanwhile, pointed out that Wheldon's passing had come in a 'fluke, freakish accident' that next year's Dallara - which is to remember the Briton in some way - would help to alleviate.
"We've come a long way," the multi-discipline champion insisted, "In the '60s and '70s, open-wheel drivers had a 35-40 per cent chance of surviving a career. Today it's 99.9 per cent. Some things need to be revisited perhaps, but to say that, after 100 years, we don't have the knowledge to make these things safe enough for ovals is absolutely absurd."
Despite his assertions as to the safety of LVMS and other circuits on the IndyCar schedule, Tracy did admit to having some thoughts of calling time on his career, having witnessed Wheldon's accident at close hand. Although his belief that the Briton hit his car during his flight into the wall, it would appear that Tracy's entry was actually collected by that of another UK racer, Pippa Mann, who also overturned amid the chaos. Mann, in her first season as an IndyCar racer after agreeing deal for just a handful of races, escaped with a burn to her hand.
“I have been there, seen it all, done it all, [but] what I saw on Sunday is the first time I've seen that first hand in my career and it's not the sort of thing I want to see again,” he told CNN, “I have had a long career - I've been racing 20 years now in IndyCars - and my wife said to me last night 'you have enough trophies and have enough money, do we need to do this any more?'
“After seeing one of your friends die, and knowing the family, that is the question mark I have to answer for myself.”