Sunday 24 September 2017

Wheldon's loss may bequeath legacy of safety to US racing

A disproportionate level of risk has always been attached to motor racing in America, writes David Kennedy, who witnessed it at first hand

The possibility of death is a constant companion when you are a racing driver but it's not one you dwell on -- I suppose in the same way that the tightrope walker never looks into the abyss.

But that all changes when someone like Dan Wheldon is killed. The 33-year-old was the embodiment of the American dream. He left Britain in 1999 to seek fame and fortune on the other side of the Atlantic and he won the greatest prize -- the Indy 500 race -- not once but twice.

Wheldon's death in Las Vegas last Sunday highlights the two extremes of glory and tragedy.

In my Formula 3 days, my good friend and team-mate, Janito Campus from Argentina, who considered himself part Irish because he was educated by the Christian Brothers, was killed testing my Argo car in Silverstone. My family initially just heard that an Argo driver had been killed. What turned out to be relief for one family was unimaginable pain for his father who came to England to collect his son's body.

Last Sunday's tragedy brought me back to 1981 when, as a young man at the crossroads of a career at the highest level, I stood trackside watching an IndyCar race at Phoenix International Raceway in Arizona.

My Formula One career had stalled the previous season and I headed to the States to try my luck there, which then as now stands as a testimony to meritocracy, a welcome change from the cheque-book obsessed European racing scene.

Formula One racing had suffered three fatalities in the previous four years and there would be two more the following year so to race in that category was to accept a high level of risk.

But IndyCar racing was in a far darker league, and as I watched the field circulate perilously close to a concrete wall at upwards of 220mph I realised then that I could never reconcile that disproportionate danger with my ambition, which although was rabid, did have its limits.

Back then the chassis were made of riveted aluminum with little regard for deformable structure, while the concrete perimeter had none of the forgiving nature of the current impact-absorbing walls.

I never regretted my decision to walk away. Within a year Gordon Smiley, a contemporary from the British F1 series, was killed at Indianapolis. Then Derek Daly suffered horrific leg injuries in a 206mph crash at Michigan in 1984. He was incredibly lucky to survive. He had three years of therapy and rehabilitation following that accident. His son Conor races now in Indy Lights in the US, the junior category of IndyCar racing.

When I turned my back on racing Stateside, I went on to forge a career in Sportscar racing, which in retrospect also appears to have been obscenely dangerous but at the time seemed like a natural transition.

In 1986, when I was racing at Le Mans, in between stints I was timing another driver called Joe Gardner. It was around 2.0am and Gardner never came around. The ticking stopwatch told me something was amiss. He had been killed instantly when his car suffered a mechanical failure.

Despite fatalities like this, the decision not to race in the US was to my mind justified. IndyCar racing was and remains the most dangerous form of single-seater racing. The ratio of death in IndyCar racing when compared to Formula 1 is wholly unacceptable.

Wheldon's death was the fifth in IndyCar racing since Ayrton Senna was killed in Imola in 1994. The previous IndyCar fatality was Paul Dana, who died in practice at Homestead Miami in 2006, in a race that was subsequently won by Dan Wheldon.

Wheldon's team owner Sam Schmidt is confined to a wheelchair after an IndyCar crash in 2000 and is now left contemplating a full withdrawal from the sport in this the year Wheldon won his second Indy 500.

The tragedy of Wheldon's death, and indeed of all racing drivers who lose their lives, most of them away from the glare of publicity, is brutal for their families. In Dan's case, he leaves a grieving wife and two young children.

Ironically, a new Dellara IndyCar chassis which was due to be introduced next season, will be named after Dan, since he contributed much to its development. That car will make it harder to interlock wheels with other competitors or to ride over the back of the car in front.

It comes too late for him, but his legacy, in helping develop a safer car for others, is a fine one. Nobody can ever say with conviction whether it would have prevented the chaos of the Las Vegas 15-car pile but it is progress that was well overdue.

A racing driver should be able to race within reasonably safe parameters. Max Mosley, the former FIA president, provided that security in F1. IndyCar sadly lags behind.

Twenty-five-year-old Co Meath driver Peter Dempsey took the US route in 2008 and has enjoyed terrific success there with Mazda and in Indy Lights. Like many fellow competitors, he too was greatly affected by Wheldon's death.

Next weekend sees the inaugural Indian Grand Prix to be held at the Buddh International Circuit in India located in Uttar Pradesh (close to New Delhi) in the northern region of the country.

There has been talk about staging a race in India since the mid-'90s and, finally, after a series of false starts, the Formula One circus will raise the big top at the home of one of the most significant emerging world economies.

With Brazil and China already on the calendar, now India, and Russia coming in 2014, you could say the billionaire Bernie Ecclestone has put another BRIC in his financial wall.

The circuit design is from the pen of F1's regular architect Hermann Tilke, and the 5.1km track promises plenty of overtaking opportunities with its long straights punctuated by tight corners and elevation changes.

McLaren has begun to close the gap to Red Bull having finally broken the constructor champion's stranglehold in qualifying in Korea. Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button will be pushing hard for a win as they chase second place in the drivers' championship.

At this, the third-last race of the season, it will be a new frontier for all the drivers taking part. They, like everyone, will be hoping it will be, above all, a safe experience for all concerned.

Sunday Indo Sport

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