Wheldon Crash Should Be A 'Wakeup Call' To Racing

Bruce Martin, a reporter for Sports Illustrated.Com, witnessed the crash that killed Indy racer Dan Wheldon last Sunday in Las Vegas. Martin and Ari Shapiro discuss why Wheldon crashed, the dangers of racing and what can be done to make the sport safer.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

People throughout auto racing are asking how to prevent future crashes after the death of racecar driver Dan Wheldon in a 15-car pileup during an IndyCar race in Las Vegas over the weekend. Bruce Martin is the auto racing columnist for SportsIllustrated.com. He's covered racing for 30 years, and he says IndyCar is the fastest auto racing circuit in the world, with the cars to prove it.

BRUCE MARTIN: Indy cars are built to be thoroughbred, high-speed racing machines. A NASCAR stock car is built a little bit more for, you know, bumping and grinding, being able to lean into another car, lean into another driver. Indy car is built more on finesse. But the element of danger in IndyCar goes up because of the speed, because of the open wheels, and just because of the style of racing.

SHAPIRO: Describe the conversations you're hearing in IndyCar racing about new safety changes after this crash.

MARTIN: IndyCar had already looked ahead to safety improvements with the new car that was coming out in 2012. The fact is, with that particular crash that we saw on Sunday, it has absolutely nothing to do with the design of the car, as much as it was too many cars racing in too tight a formation at much too high of a speed for a track that size.

SHAPIRO: So if the crash on Sunday had nothing to do with the design of the cars, are the safety changes that you're talking about going to really make a difference in IndyCar racing?

MARTIN: Yes, because the cockpit will be dramatically improved. There'll be extra protection for the driver in the cockpit. There's also going to be some body work that is going to cover the rear of the rear wheels, so that wheels can't interlock like what happened on Sunday that caused so many of those cars to go airborne.

SHAPIRO: You were there in the stands when the crash happened on Sunday. Describe what the feeling was there in the stadium.

MARTIN: I was actually in pit lane, at the exit of pit land and turn one. The crash started in-between turns one and two. And you could hear the expression of the crowd over the sound of the 34 racing engines and the crashing going on in the background. It was just kind of a collective gasp.

It was a scene that I had never seen at an IndyCar race. That many cars. I mean, it was half the field. This was just cars being launched - launched into the air once they ran into the back of other cars because of the way the wheels are. I mean, these things looked like missiles being launched out of a silo.

SHAPIRO: Is a career in car racing like a career as a stunt man, where people go into work each day knowing that something unexpected and disastrous could happen? Is this just part of the daily reality for these guys?

MARTIN: Well, yes and no. It should be pointed out that Dan Wheldon's fatality was the first fatality since 2006. But there's always going to be an element of danger. This is not baseball. This is auto racing. You're dealing with mechanical parts. You're dealing with flammable fuels.

So even though this should serve as a tremendous wakeup call for those in the motorsports community, there's never going to really be a time where it's going to be completely safe. And to be honest with you, what has generally set auto racers apart from other athletes is they look fear in the face and don't flinch.

SHAPIRO: That's Bruce Martin, who is the auto racing columnist for SportIllustrated.com. Thanks a lot for talking with us.

MARTIN: Thank you.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.