Mario Andretti estimates that in the first three decades of his racing career – the 1960s, '70s and '80s – his chances of surviving an accident were about 35 to 40 percent.
"Now it's 99 percent for these guys," Andretti said Wednesday. "I don't think you have that good a chance in your street car going to work."
In the days since two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon's tragic death in the IndyCar season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a normally ambivalent public (including the media) has shined a spotlight on the world of open-wheel racing, looking for answers. How could this happen? What can be done to prevent something like this from happening again? And, inevitably, is racing too dangerous for its own good?
"People think we're crazy, irresponsible," Andretti said in a telephone conversation with Yahoo! Sports in which his voice told the story of a man still shaken by the tragedy he'd witnessed three days earlier. "None of that is true. People need to know the facts."
Starting with this: Every time drivers strap into the cockpit of a race car, they know they are taking a risk, albeit a calculated one. They assume the risk because it's outweighed by the reward – i.e. the thrill of competition and the exhilarating sensation of speed. They trust the cars are safe, perhaps not completely safe, but as much as the latest and greatest in technology allow.
And where that technology is today is far better than it was even 20 years ago.
"I did a parade deal in one of my old race cars," four-time Indy 500 winner Rick Mears said. "I looked around and said, 'Boy, what was I thinking?' But at the time it was state of the art – the best thing we knew – so that's what we went with."
Since Mears last drove, the IndyCar Series has introduced, among other things, SAFER barriers (soft walls that cushion the blows of cars slamming into them), a stronger "tub" or cockpit and head and neck restraints.
Out of the 15-car melee that took Wheldon's life, 14 drivers are still alive. Through all the carnage, the cockpits held strong and kept the drivers' bodies out of harm's way, while the SAFER barriers cushioned the blows when cars slammed into the retaining walls.
Wheldon was put in danger when he launched off E.J. Viso's left-rear wheel, throwing him into the catch fence cockpit-side first. The tragic irony is that Wheldon was the chief test driver of the new car the IndyCar Series will unveil next season that features covers over parts of the rear wheels that should limit, if not completely eliminate, cars launching off one another.
"Part of the thing with safety is you can crash-test a car 'til doomsday and learn all you can that way, but you can never reproduce collisions that take place on track because you never know what they are going to be," Mears said. "Multicar crashes, angles, getting hit by another car after one has made contact. You try to learn from everything you can."
While the IndyCar series can't create a policy that guarantees 100 percent safety, it can legislate away certain scenarios that put drivers in danger. For those wanting to know how best to prevent an incident like Wheldon's death from happening again, it starts with not having 34 cars racing side by side at 220 mph.
Going into Sunday's race, drivers feared the conditions were ripe for such an incident. The cars were set up too equally, meaning all could run similar speeds, and the banking at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was too high for open-wheel cars because they allowed everyone to run full throttle through the corners.
"[The banking] made it too easy to go around any part of track," Andretti explained. "That invites a problem in itself. Two abreast is bad enough to deal with, but three abreast is even worse. You can do that with stock cars because you can touch and bang a little bit without real consequences, but when we do that, touch wheels, it's a launching pad and that's what happened."
Mears said IndyCar can eliminate dangerous side-by-side racing by altering the setups on the cars to make it more difficult to get through the corners. That way, some drivers will have to lift off the throttle more than others, creating separation.
Andretti and Mears, though, do not agree with five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, who this week pleaded with IndyCar to cease running on ovals. According to USA Today, Johnson clarified his statement, saying he meant "high-banked ovals." With that point, Andretti does agree.
"We don't need [banking]," Andretti said. "[The cars] can corner fast without 20 degrees of banking."
[Slideshow: Fans pay tribute to Wheldon]
However, the most difficult issue the series faces going forward is this: Is every driver on the track skilled enough to be there?
A not-so-secret secret in racing is that drivers can buy their way into a race. Sponsor dollars often trump talent, and Wheldon was a prime example. Here was an accomplished driver with unquestioned ability, yet he did not have a full-time ride in 2011. Without question there were drivers in the IndyCar Series this season with less ability than Wheldon, yet they had full-time rides because they brought sponsor dollars.
It's one thing to put a Triple-A talent at third base for the Yankees, where the worst thing that can happen is a ground ball through the legs. It's quite another to put yourself side-by-side with said talent at 220 miles an hour.
Both Andretti and Mears insist the depth of talent in the IndyCar Series is just as deep as it was in their day, and Andretti notes that every driver has to be licensed before granted entry into a race.
Still, even Andretti admits that some drivers could "slip through the cracks." And let's not overlook the fact that IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard, in an effort to boost slumping TV ratings, offered a $5 million bonus to any non-regular driver who won the finale. He even openly lobbied for "a Travis Pastrana," the X-Games star who has never competed in a single open-wheel event, to participate in the challenge.
Ultimately, the non-regular for the $5 million challenge turned out to be Wheldon, who four days prior to the race said this about his chances of winning, despite a rule that stipulated he must start from the back: "I think they added that rule just for me. There's potential for me to win the race. It certainly adds to the excitement."
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- Dan Wheldon
- Rick Mears