The perfect storm: A high-banked oval crowded with the largest field of the season. Inexperienced or impatient drivers racing at more than 220 mph. Absolutely no room for error.
What was supposed to be a season-ending showdown at Las Vegas Motor Speedway became instead a script for disaster Sunday: a fiery 15-car crash that killed popular two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon and left the shaken auto racing community to deal with uncomfortable questions.
The drivers knew the Las Vegas race was going to present challenges even before the season began.
The sleek, open-wheel machines of IndyCar had not raced at the track since 2000, and the now-defunct Champ Car Series was last there in 2005. Some of the drivers had been there before, but many had not. None had raced an IndyCar there since the track’s 2006 reconfiguration added “progressive banking” designed to increase side-by-side racing.
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So there was some initial fretting when second-year IndyCar chairman Randy Bernard announced a $5 million payday to any moonlighting driver who could win the race.
Bernard had hoped to land a superstar or two from the fender-rubbing NASCAR circuit. Maybe even former Indianapolis 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya.
But nobody bit, despite interest from NASCAR driver Kasey Kahne, X-Games star Travis Pastrana and former CART champion Alex Zanardi.
“Hopefully they’ll pick someone competent enough to drive those things because it is an IndyCar,” Penske driver Will Power said shortly after the prize was announced. “You can’t rub panels. You rub wheels, and someone’s going flying.”
Kahne said Monday that team owner Rick Hendrick was against his participation, and Hendrick confirmed it. Kahne’s lack of experience in an IndyCar made it virtually impossible for him to win.
That left only Wheldon, winner of 14 races on ovals in IndyCar, including the Indy 500 in May, to be eligible for the $5 million prize. Bernard made that ruling because the 33-year-old Englishman lost his job at the end of last season, put together a one-race deal for the Indy 500 and had turned down offers from less-competitive teams.
Wheldon put together a deal with Sam Schmidt Motorsports to race two weeks ago at Kentucky and for the prize on Sunday.
“He wanted to do it in the worst way,” an emotional Bernard said Monday.
A lot of other drivers wanted to be in the race, too.
Interest in the final race, which Bernard had worked tirelessly to create, had risen enough that sponsors wanted to get involved. Because IndyCar is in the final year of racing its current car design, teams had expendable inventory.
It led to 34 entries in the field. That’s one car more than the Indy 500, five more than the race two weeks ago at Kentucky, and eight more than IndyCar had in Japan last month.
Who were these new drivers? Men and women without much experience at IndyCar’s top level.
It was the fourth start for Wade Cunningham, who was in the thick of the action where the accident started.
It was the third career start for Pippa Mann and the 20th for JR Hildebrand, who both spent Sunday night in a Las Vegas hospital recovering from injuries suffered in the accident.
At least six drivers didn’t have enough starts to complete a full season, and some of the veterans had raced only a handful of times this season.
They all turn out for the Indy 500, too, and the speeds on that oval are faster than they were at Las Vegas. But Indianapolis is a relatively flat track, is a mile longer than Las Vegas, and drivers have three weeks of track time to prepare for the race.
The drivers had three hours, 15 minutes of practice time over three days to get ready for Las Vegas. They were not on the track at all Saturday.
Davey Hamilton alluded to a lack of experience contributing to Sunday’s accident.
“You can’t come in here and race with these guys and think you’re going to beat them — ever,” Hamilton said.
Not every driver practices the patience and give-and-take approach required to make it unscathed to the finish line. Veterans in every circuit complain about young, aggressive drivers making moves far too early in the race and not understanding the etiquette required on a dangerous track.
Dario Franchitti, who won his third consecutive IndyCar title by default Sunday, recognized early that the racing ahead of him was far too intense. He hooked up with Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon, falling to the back of the field and away from danger.
“I could see within five laps people were starting to do crazy stuff,” Franchitti said. “I love hard racing, but that to me is not really what it’s about.”
The accident that led to Wheldon’s fatal crash began far ahead of him, when one car veered into another. Suddenly, everybody was running into everybody.
Wheldon had to start at the back of the field as part of the eligibility rules. By the time he reached the scene, the wreckage was everywhere.
He ran into another car at an angle on the track’s banking that sent his car airborne, rolling cockpit-first into the catch fence. Clark County Coroner Michael Murphy said Wheldon died of blunt head trauma.