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.
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.
“The upside is winning that big purse, but it’s not realistic to think you can go out there and beat the drivers who run the series full time,” Hendrick said. “They’re incredibly talented, and it would be a significant investment of time and resources to be competitive. You’d have to test and practice, and it would inevitably take focus away from what you’re trying to do (in NASCAR).
“Not having the experience in those type of cars — not having a feel for them — increases the odds of something happening (on the track). We have a lot of commitments, and I didn’t think it made sense to create a distraction or take a chance.”
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.
“I’m a part-time guy now. When I go to Indianapolis, I get weeks of practice,” he said. “But the days of me coming here, the experience I have in these cars, to try to compete against these guys is very, very difficult. These guys are tough, the best in the world. To compete and win, you need to do it all the time.
“And you can’t bring guys that have never raced, especially in IndyCars, to a deal like that,” he added.
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.
That’s a common practice in NASCAR at Daytona and Talladega, where drivers have often laid back — away from the action for 450 miles — before mounting a frantic late charge through the field.
“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.”
Danica Patrick, who is headed full time to NASCAR next year, knew it was going to be one long game of chicken before the race even began.
“I was really nervous coming into (the race) and why is because I knew as a driver we were going to be put in positions to decide to be flat-out and possibly be part of something like that, or look like a wimp and lift,” Patrick said. “But you know what? I lifted a little. There’s just a lot going on out there and it was way, way, way too early.”
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.
Sitting at home, five-time defending NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson watched the accident in horror. On Monday, he urged IndyCar to stop racing on ovals.
“I wouldn’t run them on ovals. There’s just no need to. Those cars are fantastic for street circuits, for road courses,” Johnson said.
“I hate, hate, hate that this tragedy took place. But hopefully they can learn from it and make those cars safer on ovals somehow,” he said.
“I have a lot of friends that race in that series, and I’d just rather see them on street circuits and road courses. No more ovals.”
Bernard, who just two weeks ago stressed the importance of having ovals on his circuit’s schedule to help develop American stars, must decide if there’s any place at all for them in IndyCar. He declined Monday to speculate on the future of ovals, saying it’s too soon for such decisions.
“Anytime you get into an IndyCar, you get into any race car, especially on an oval, this can happen,” Montoya said. “But in NASCAR, we have fenders, we have roofs. It’s not the same thing.”
Ganassi, the championship team owner who once employed Wheldon, also knows the risks.
“Sure, it’s always in the back of your mind, we all know the dangers and we all know what can happen,” Ganassi said. “But when it slaps you in the face, it hurts. Everybody hurts.”