October 16, 2011
A series struggling for ratings and relevancy outside of the month of May viewed Sunday, October 16 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway as its chance to grab a weekend's worth of headlines.
It got them, but in the absolute worst way.
[Video: Jay Hart: 'A tragic day']
The passing of Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon in a fiery, multi-car crash on Lap 12 of the Izod IndyCar Series' ultimate race took those headlines, and sadly adds more intrigue to a series with a lot of unknowns in the future.
Sunday was the end of an era for the current car, the sport's most popular name, and, incredibly enough, the rulebook. It wasn't supposed to be the end of a career and life for a man counted on to be one of the most integral pieces of the series moving forward.
Vegas had all of the makings of a showcase event, one to highlight the best attributes of the IndyCar Series. Fast, side-by-side racing lap after lap, and an undecided season points battle between two drivers starting next to each other in the middle of the field. It also featured a $5 million bonus for Wheldon if he was to win from the back of the field.
Instead, it ended in carnage.
Thirty-four cars were entered in Sunday's race, the last for the current Dallara chassis. In 2012, the series moves to a newer, safer car designed to increase manufacturer competition and individualism. Wheldon was the test driver for that car.
The field was so large — one car larger than the Indianapolis 500 field — because those Dallara chassis and Honda engines would be obsolete on Monday. If they were raced Sunday, they weren't going to be again, and that's money down the drain. That turned out to be both a good thing and a bad thing.
A good thing because it would have — and did, for 12 laps — produced white-knuckle, three-wide racing. But that good thing means that the cars were just inches apart at 220 mph. Yeah, these cars have lots of downforce, but they also have wings and no roofs. And there were 34 of them. More chances for mistakes, and more cars to be collected.
Wheldon was starting from the back because he was the sole participant in the IndyCar Series' $5 million challenge. Even though he had won at the Brickyard in May after J.R. Hildebrand crashed coming out of Turn 4, the former champion didn't have a full-time ride and was eligible for the bonus, given to a non-full-time driver who won from the back of the field.
The safety measures taken by the IndyCar Series have been commendable. Drivers have ended up upside down in recent years and have crawled out of the cockpit unscathed. But we've all seen what's happened to the Cup CoT cars when catchfences come into play.
It was also the final race for Danica Patrick as a full-time IndyCar driver. Patrick was on the inside of the initial contact that started the fiery crash and escaped on the inside line unscathed.
As Patrick shifts to NASCAR, the IndyCar Series didn't have a driver ready-made to step into Patrick's role as the mainstream recognizable face of the series. It was going to be a collaborative effort and a rejuvenated Wheldon, one of 18 drivers to win multiple Indianapolis 500s, would have been one of those in the collaboration.
And if a Patrick-less series with a new car wasn't enough, discussion leading up to the Vegas race centered around how the series would be officiated in the future after a series of rulings that have left drivers increasingly animated, including when Will Power flipped a double barrel gesture towards IndyCar race control after the New Hampshire race was restarted under slick track conditions.
Add in an ever fluid schedule — New Hampshire is gone as quickly as it was back, and Kentucky and Japan are off the schedule — and extremely low television ratings for the races shown on Versus, and it was easy to wonder about IndyCar's future before the green flag dropped on Sunday.
Now, with the loss of one of its best people and positive assets, those thoughts are cloudier. And that stinks.
More Dan Wheldon coverage on Yahoo! Sports:
• Dan Wheldon's death leaves many questions without answers
• Video: Drivers react to his passing
• Indy 500 champ dies in horrific crash
• Video: Dan Wheldon's visit with Y! Sports just before death
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