IndyCar Tries To Start Fresh After Racing Death

Ahead of the IndyCar season opener in Florida, Audie Cornish talks with ESPN senior writer Ryan McGee about the changes that have — and haven't — been implemented since the crash-related death of driver Dan Wheldon at last year's season finale at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In Florida this weekend, IndyCar racers will take their places for the first competition since the death of a champion. Last fall, two time Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon was killed in a 15-car crash on a Las Vegas track.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It's opening up in front of him and he...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Oh. Here we go.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Unintelligible) contact and a huge crash up...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Oh. Oh.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: ...bump in turn number two. Oh, multiple cars involved.

CORNISH: Wheldon's death, seen live on ESPN, generated a major debate in the sport about safety.

Here to talk more about it is Ryan McGee. He's a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

And, Ryan, to begin, tell us, what are the factors that are believed to have caused the crash that ended Dan Wheldon's life?

RYAN MCGEE: Well, unfortunately, it was just kind of a perfect storm scenario, and it's something that a lot of people had kind of feared down in their gut for a while, which is when you take these cars which have big, giant exposed tires, and you have them racing in close quarters on a high-banked racetrack primarily built for stock car racing, everybody knows that once those exposed tires touch, you have the potential for a catastrophe.

CORNISH: So, Ryan, what are some of the safety precautions or changes that the league has made as a result?

MCGEE: Well, the biggest thing that you can see immediately is with the race car itself. They call it open-wheel racing because those tires have always been exposed going all the way back to the first IndyCar races at the turn of the last century. Well, now, those rear tires are essentially covered. They're still exposed on the top half. And now, there's a rear bumper that goes around behind those tires. And the important thing to know here is this car is called a DW12, for Dan Wheldon, his initials.

And the reason is because IndyCar brought Dan in to be the test driver to shake down all these potential new chassis. And it's the irony of ironies, and it's sad. But, ultimately, I think his legacy will be that he's the driver that put this car on the racetrack.

CORNISH: Now, shortly after that race that killed Dan Wheldon, we spoke to one of the racers who survived the crash. His name is Will Power. And he spoke about the dangers of racing the old-style car, IndyCars on NASCAR tracks.

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WILL POWER: These high-banked ovals, you run 200 laps into the path, side by side, two wide, three wide, six deep. It's too fast and too close. Pack racing IndyCars, there's just no room for error, and there's just no question that something has to change.

CORNISH: That's racer Will Power talking about IndyCars racing on NASCAR tracks, specifically high-banked, oval-shaped tracks. Ryan, why the attachment to NASCAR tracks?

MCGEE: Well, they're exciting, and it's dangerous. And that's part of the thrill of it for race fans. But at the end of day, you're talking about cars with exposed tires, where the driver's head is exposed, and they're racing in some cases 30 miles per hour faster than a NASCAR stock car is. And Will made a comment. He said high-banked, and he talked about pack racing. The idea was IndyCars will run down the flat part. Well, of course not. The fast groove is up on the high banks.

That's where they're always going to run. And so that's where they're going to be, and they're going to be in a pack, and it creates dangerous situations. So that's why they're starting to get away from that now.

CORNISH: And there's still five races scheduled for NASCAR tracks this year, correct?

MCGEE: Five races on ovals, that's right. But I would only classify one of those five ovals as a quote and unquote "NASCAR track." And that would be the Texas Motor Speedway. And its bank - it has high banks. And in the past, open-wheel racers have said this is a dangerous place. And now, they have fuel for that argument. And there's concern that there could be some sort of boycott or walkout. We'll see. Perhaps cooler heads will prevail when we get to Texas in June, but I know for a fact the folks that run that speedway are worried about what could potentially be a walkout when we get to next June.

CORNISH: Ryan McGee, he's senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Ryan, thanks so much for talking with us.

MCGEE: Thank you.

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