(Jimmie Johnson's suggestion that all oval tracks come off the Indy Car schedule takes things too far.)
The sad part of Sunday’s horrific IZOD IndyCar Series accident at Las Vegas Motor Speedway is that it wasn’t the first time.
The shear volume of the 15-car crash that subsequently took the life of Dan Wheldon may have been the largest number of cars involved in one of these high speed melees, but unfortunately the series has a long history of spectacular accidents when racing at intermediate-sized ovals.
Jimmie Johnson for one has seen enough.
"I wouldn't run them on ovals," Johnson said. “Those cars are fantastic for street circuits and road courses.”
While the five-time Sprint Cup Series champion's assessment might be a bit too drastic, he may at least have a point in terms of the mid-sized tracks that quite honestly were built for stock cars and not open-wheel racing.
Since the birth of the Indy Racing League after the split from CART in the mid-1990s, IndyCar racing migrated to a schedule heavily weighted to high-banked oval tracks. From the outset it was clear the racing product was among the most sensational in all of motorsports featuring breath taking three and four wide competition as well as a string of photo finishes.
But it also was one of the most dangerous forms of racing on the planet.
While Wheldon’s death was the first in the series since Paul Dana’s practice crash at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2006, the violent wreck was the latest in a long line of accidents that have marred the sport’s legacy.
Kenny Brack somehow survived one of the scariest moments in racing history when he became airborne at Texas Motor Speedway in a 2003 IRL race. Brack’s car literally disintegrated after flying into the track’s backstretch catch fence before coming to rest in a pile of smoldering parts and pieces.
“I really don’t remember too much except that feeling of helplessness when the car went up in the air,” said Brack, who returned to the sport after recovering from his injuries before finally retiring. “Once a race car becomes airborne it’s really just in the hands of a higher being.”
Current Penske Racing driver Ryan Briscoe shared a Brack-like moment at Chicagoland Speedway in 2005.
Briscoe touched wheels with Alex Gurney as they raced through turns three and four at the 1.5-mile oval and his car was launched into the SAFER Barrier wall breaking into two and then catching fire.
Briscoe’s injuries included two broken collarbones, a bruised lung, concussion and cuts to his legs and arms.
“I remember the initial contact with Alex and thought that we might just get away with not hitting the wall, but suddenly I was airborne and the rest is a little fuzzy," Briscoe said.
By far the worst example of how dangerous racing open wheel cars on high banked oval tracks came in 1998 and 1999 when debris from on track crashes went into the grandstands and took the lives of spectators.
Adrian Fernandez hit the wall in a July of 1998 CART race at Michigan International Speedway sending a tire and part of his car’s suspension into the stands killing three spectators.
The following year an IRL crash at Charlotte Motor Speedway involving John Paul Sr., Stan Wattles and Scott Harrington sent debris over the front stretch catch fence and into stands also taking the lives of three spectators.
But despite the tragedies and potentially dangerous situations, Indy cars continue to race on tracks like Las Vegas.
However the time may have finally come to disband the idea altogether.
I’m conflicted in even writing that line. Less than two weeks ago I proposed the league add more oval track races and pursue an alignment with additional NASCAR weekends to generate more exposure. The scintillating action at the race before Vegas in Kentucky was among the most thrilling I’ve seen in recent years.
There is no arguing the IndyCar product on intermediate ovals is tremendous. Sadly we now realize too late the risk outweighs the reward.
Racecar drivers are a unique breed of people, somehow able to put tragedy in the rear view mirror and continue to go about their business.
“I’m ready to go to work,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said at Monday’s fuel injection test in Charlotte. “There are things we’ve got to accomplish today, and we’ll try to see what we can get done. … I drive race cars for a living. That’s what I’m here to do.
“Racing is just a dangerous sport. It’s a dangerous thing to do. It can never be safe enough, but I like my chances.”
But in some cases those chances might be able to be improved. The IndyCar Series now faces that decision.
In reality that is the direction the series has been heading. Next year’s schedule, although not officially released, includes only five ovals with the Indianapolis 500 the cornerstone as well as stops in Fontana, Texas, Iowa and Las Vegas.
But completely eradicating ovals from the circuit is too much of a knee jerk reaction. The series can put on entertaining and competitive races at venues that don’t generate as much speed or danger like Las Vegas or similar mid-size tracks.
Flat and shorter ovals like Milwaukee, New Hampshire, Gateway or Richmond -– all places the series has run many times –- provide great opportunities for close competition while maintaining a more solid oval presence on the schedule.
But every one of those facilities have been taken off the schedule for one reason -– poor attendance. Despite a compelling product, oval track operators for the most part have not been able to make an IndyCar race profitable given the embarrassing fan turnout in most cases.
I think IndyCar officials need to keep oval track racing at the core of the series. After all its biggest race -- in fact the biggest race in the world -- is held on the famed Brickyard oval every May.
Maybe more promotional efforts and marketing support like what was poured into the Las Vegas event will help build the audience for races in Milwaukee or Gateway or New Hampshire. But with money and the economy still dictating the sport's direction, the opportunity to focus more resources on those events most likely isn't there.
So like it or not, the IndyCar Series with its next generation race cars set to debut next season is more than likely headed down a path of having the Indy 500 anchor a schedule of grand prix racing, with road courses and street circuits comprising the bulk of the calendar.
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