MoragMacpherson (moragmacpherson) wrote,

The Once and Future Tragedy: RIP Dan Wheldon

My family and I were supposed to go out to dinner last night.  Around 4pm my Dad disappeared into the basement - we figured to get some nicer clothes on.  Finally, as 6pm came and went, my mother and I now feeling more than a little hungry, I went downstairs to check on the old man.  "You ready to go?" I asked.

"Dan Wheldon died in a crash at the Indy race today," my Dad said.  He kept folding laundry and cleaning off his tool bench while he watched the after reports on television - replays of flaming wreckage flying through the air, conciliatory words, the usual cliches of grief and pre-emptive speculations into cause.  I walked upstairs in my little black dress and told Mom that I'd go get some take out instead.  When she asked why, all I could do was shrug and say, "Racing death."  She made that hideous sigh of complete sorrow and incomprehension that she usually only makes when GOP candidates allege that homosexuals are responsible for the downfall of the American economy, set down her purse, and went downstairs to try to comfort Dad.  The lady behind the register at the Chinese place asked if I was okay.  "Just fine, thank you."  I added a dollar to her tip.  But I wasn't fine, my Dad's still a little shaken today; it's never fine, and somehow, it keeps happening.

And I still love racing.

"But Morag, why are you so invested in motorsports?  Seems a bit odd for a self-pronounced nerd and proud defender of the liberal arts who cannot for the life of her successfully assemble a piece of flat-pack furniture without asking for help at least once? "  It does seem a bit odd, doesn't it?  None of my friends in grad school or at undergrad - even the engineering guys! - are terribly interested in race cars - except for the DARPA self-driving car challenges.  But the fact is, I'm also a member of a racing family -- on my father's side. 

I wonder sometimes if the closest equivalent to families that build and/or race cars are families that breed and/or race horses. It's something that goes back generations and seems to transmit genetically, an autosomal dominant gene no less.   Look at the Pettys, the Allisons, the Andrettis, the Earnhardts, and, yes, my family.  Of the major sports leagues in the world and despite its comparatively short history, NASCAR was the first and until this year, the only, league to boast (and all too quickly, mourn) a fourth generation athlete (congratulations to the NHL and the Geoffrion family: may Blake have a long, safe and successful career).  My mother hates race cars and dislikes driving - if it weren't for the privacy, independence, and convenience that automotive travel affords, she'd probably hate cars in general.  Hence the huffing.  But she loves my father, so she puts up with being attached to a racing family. 

My family's racing history is only three generations long, but it does stretch back almost sixty years: there is a particular racing-class that developed largely at a track near my hometown.  The racing-class' Hall of Fame is hosted by that track.  My grandfather was the first car-builder inducted into that Hall of Fame in its inaugural year, (his partner and driver was the first man inducted after the people who built the damn track).  Grandpa introduced the concept of tubular framed race cars to the U.S., designed the suspension which remains the basis for racing suspension in that class, and pioneered a number of safety designs (more on that later).  Dad and his younger brother worked Grandpa's pit crew; my uncle was a reasonably successful driver on a minor Formula circuit during his twenties and thirties; as was my father's best friend - my older and I both volunteered in their pit crews.  (I held bolts during tire changes)  Dad's best friend also owns and runs a successful fabrication company for racing shells and body work.  My youngest cousin races go-karts when he isn't playing lacrosse has been scouted by a couple of Champ Car organizations as well as a number of division one lacrosse programs.  His mother's rooting for lacrosse - my uncle is encouraging the racing route.  Like I said: I think it's honest to goodness in the blood. 

To argue my aunt and mother's side: there's a good argument to be made that motorsports - be they water or ground based (do aviation competitions still exist?  I only ever read about them occurring back in the 1920s and 30s) - are the most extravagant, opulent, and wasteful - not to mention dangerous - sports in existence today.  In a time when many of us are deeply concerned about our carbon footprints and air pollution, race cars consume fossil fuels at a rate that is all but criminal (your average F-1 car boasts an average fuel efficiency rating of 4 miles per gallon). 

Accidents on race tracks threaten not only the drivers but also their pit crews: my grandfather spent two years regaining the ability to walk after his ankle was run over during an otherwise routine stop).  It kills fans - it was only a few years twelve years ago (God, I'm old) that a tire thrown from an Indy-car during a crash flew into the stands and killed three spectators.  It kills officials - Ayrton Senna was the last driver to die in an F1 car, but they've killed two race marshals since then.  Not even builders are safe: my father's best friend who fabricates parts for a living?  Is currently battling leukemia for the second time; his doctors have attributed the cancer to his near constant exposure to benzene (despite his religious use of safety precautions).  If there's one thing we can all agree that racing does (disputes over whether drivers are "athletes" continue to this day - trust me, they really are), we can say that it kills people. 

Still I love and I watch.

Most other sports kill people too - the timid of heart should look into golfing and tennis, the only two big-name sports where I can't find record of a single death at any level directly caused by playing the sport as it's intended to be played - but racing deaths get a different kind of publicity, a kind of victim blaming that isn't common.  Sometimes, as yesterday, they draw attention for being fiery spectacles, but the fatal crashes of Ayrton Senna and Dale Earnhardt initially appeared minor scrapes when compared to some of the collisions they survived.  (I witnessed both deaths live on television, along with millions of other people.  Videos of most of the fatal crashes mentioned in this post are readily available on the internet, if you're curious, but out of respect for the drivers and their families, I will not link to them in this post - all video links in this post feature non-fatal accidents and collisions) 

Personally, I think that the particular taboo linked to racing deaths stems from two factors: first, because so many people have had their lives affected by fatal car accidents one way or another, the deaths of drivers deliberately engaging in risky behaviors while driving feels much more personal and close-to-home: this could happen to me or someone I love.  There's also the surprise rubber-necking guilt: as mentioned above, other than sitting at my grandmother's side in the hospital and watching the World Trade Center attacks, the only deaths I have witnessed, live as they happened, are race car drivers - and I don't think I'm alone in this. These combine to makes the deaths feel more shocking and personal than, say, the shortened lifespans of NFL player, or the tragic sudden heart attacks that a lacrosse ball occasionally will cause regardless of the number of pads worn

Still, we watch.  And there are a lot of us.

FIFA can boast all that it wants about the international thrills of the World Cup - every four years; the NFL can proclaim the Superbowl the biggest annual ratings draw in the United States; but NASCAR's Sprint Cup not only draws in the second-most television viewers (with only one event per weekend) but its tracks are constantly sold out beyond standing room only and more than ten courses on the circuit have a capacity of more than 125,000.  The world's largest football/soccer venue is India's Salt Lake Stadium (capacity 120,000); the largest NFL stadium is the New Meadowlands (yes, it's the New Meadowlands, I don't care who bought the naming rights) which hosts a paltry 82,500.  Indianapolis International Motor Speedway attracts about 400,000 to its premier annual events: the IndyCar Indianapolis 500, and NASCAR's Brickyard 400 (again, fuck you corporate naming rights).  To lend some perspective to that number: twice a year, Indianapolis International Motor Speedway hosts the entire population of Miami for a weekend.

Then someone like Dan Wheldon dies in an accident and all of us whose lives are in some way touched by motor sports turn to each other and go, "What the hell did we do wrong this time?"  and "Can we fix it?"  Half the people involved in racing are engineers, so we have a slight advantage over other sports when we ask these questions, because we can find our solutions in the main equipment used, as opposed to examining the exact angles and tolerances of individual human bodies (although those are important too). 

What goes wrong?  There are driver errors, design failures, mechanical errors/failures, poor track conditions, and yes, the underlying weaknesses and tolerances inherent in the design of the human body.  And the margins of error all get narrower as you increase the speed, and eventually, in any race, something will go wrong and there will be a crash.  race cars are designed with this fact in mind and the percentage of crashes that result in major injury/death is tiny.

It could be smaller.  We try.  But sometimes we still watch people die.

What's the difference between a crash and a death/serious injury?  Ejection from the vehicle, the most consistent (if not common) killer in street accidents is almost unheard of in professional racing - the drivers don't just wear their safety belts, they have more belts than we do.  When it was revealed that one of Dale Earnhardt's belts had torn during his deadly crash, the CEO of the manufacturer resigned in shame - even though it was unlikely that the belt in question could have prevented the fatal Basilar skull fracture.

Speaking of which: the Basilar skull fracture is the most famous and among the most common causes of death at the race track.  This otherwise rare brain injury occurs when the head jerks forward, away from the body, in a violent fashion - such as when the body is well-strapped in to a racing seat but the head is unsecured.    A HANS (Head and Neck Support) device - first designed in the early 1980s - significantly reduces the chances of this injury.  Jimmie Johnson recently survived a crash eerily similar in both angle and speed to the collision that killed Dale Earnhardt while wearing a HANS device, which became mandatory NASCAR equipment following Earnhardt's death in 2001 (other organizations quickly followed suit).

Which crashes are the most deadly?  General consensus is that the most dangerous thing a car can do is take flight, which high-speed aerodynamic objects are prone to doing: any time a car's wheels leave the ground, race fans hold their breath and not just because there's then a chance that the car will fly into the stands.  Mr. Wheldon's fatal crash yesterday was airborne.  Then again, Bobby Allison survived the 1987 crash which led to widespread use of restrictor plates on tracks with extended straight-aways.  Head on collisions with stationary objects like concrete walls (at least prior to widespread HANS use - there's not a lot of data since then) have higher fatality rates than side-impact collisions with other cars, which have a higher mortality rate than spinning collisions with walls or other cars, which have higher fatality rates than glancing collisions with either.  Beyond that?  There seems to be a lot of luck involved.

There are several factors that don't seem to affect the mortality rate as common sense would dictate.  Neither experience nor skill can predict whether the driver will survive - fatal accidents happen at the beginning (Adam Petty) in the prime of (Dan Wheldon) or at the tail-end (Dale Earnhardt Sr.) of a driver's career; mediocre drivers (sorry, Kenny Irwin Jr.), and drivers considered to be the greatest athletes of all times (Senna, Earnhardt Sr. again) in their circuits.  Fires cause some injuries but they're normally minor - unless the driver was knocked unconscious by the initial impact.  Single car crashes are just as likely to be fatal as multiple car collisions. Non-airborne rolling looks like it should be a major killer, but race cars bodies are designed with roll cages for a reason - better to roll than fly because rolls absorb some of the forward momentum.  Rolling hazards vary depending on car design - open cockpits obviously have a higher risk of major injury and death, but the highest speed car accident ever - Richard Hammond's 2006 dragster crash at 288 mph, featured both an open cockpit and a roll that ended with the top digging into the ground as it dragged to a stop - and was not fatal.

Multiple collisions within a single crash compound the risk but in unpredictable ways, and deciding which collision caused the fatal injury is... complicated.  There were two major crashes at the 2001 Daytona 500.  The first was a multiple car crash centered on Tony Stewart.  Watch the video - there's way more than a thousand words there.  We all held our breathes - after all, he'd gone airborne and flipped four times, once the long way around, but Tony and everyone else involved escaped with minor injuries. 

The second crash initially appeared much less dangerous - I can't count how many collisions happened in the Stewart accident, but the second consisted of exactly four.   Dale Earnhardt Sr. received a glancing "bump" to his rear left side (1) from Sterling Marlin during a pass attempt at the entry to turn four.  This caused the front of Earnhardt's car to turn down towards the infield.  Earnhardt (who had both bumped and been bumped by a number of drivers in his career) attempted to stay on track by turning to the right.  This turn was both a major and uncharacteristic over-correction by the veteran Earnhardt and remains the most mysterious element of the accident.  It appeared to be a sudden jerk at an extreme angle, almost a pivot - possibly made more severe because the pavement conditions on the "apron" of the track is slightly different than on the main banks.  This sent Earnhardt's car up the bank into the path of Ken Schrader, who struck him on the rear passenger side at about a 45 degree angle (2) as they moved through the middle of the turn.  Earnhardt's forward momentum -- telemetry indicates his was approaching the wall at over 170mph prior to the contact with Schrader -- pushed Schrader's car up  the bank with him, scrubbing some of Earnhardt's forward momentum and causing Schrader to begin braking as he scraped along the wall.  Earnhardt struck the wall at the outer end of the turn at roughly a sixty degree angle traveling towards the wall (rather than along the track) at something between 150 and 160 mph (3), passenger side front corner making contact first.  The front of his car crumpled (as designed) and the hood flew up against the windshield (not as designed) with considerable force. Almost before this collision was complete, Schrader's car caught up to Earnhardt's, and he rammed into the front passenger side of Earnhardt's car (4) -- the appearance was that Schrader's car pushed Earnhardt's car perpendicularly for several hundred meters, until both cars came to a complete stop.  Even though the fourth collision appeared the most violent and sustained, the final investigation concluded that Earnhardt died instantly as a result of collision three - the head-on collision with a stationary object - and that both Schrader and Marlin's involvement in the fatal nature of the crash was incidental rather than causal. 

No blame.  "What went wrong?  How do we fix it?"

As mentioned, the HANS device became mandatory and other safety equipment has evolved.  What else has been done to reduce the risks?  Perhaps the most drastic change is that the cars have been slowed down at the insistence of the drivers.  F1 cars, the fastest racing circuit that features intentional turns (drag racers go faster, but during a race they only turn if things go wrong), reduced engine sizes and top speeds following the disastrous 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. Leagues that race on long oval tracks have mandated the use of restrictor plates at Talladega, Michigan, and other tracks featuring extended straightaways (Bobby Allison, whose 1987 Talladega crash inspired these mandates, survived with head injuries including short term memory loss).  Reducing speeds allows for more human reaction time, less force on impact, and also reduces the chance of cars going airborne.  Cars have also adopted various flaps and wings designed to keep them on the ground.  Many tracks have also changed the construction of their barriers to make them safer - both through materials and design.

Another major safety innovation brings me back to my grandfather: back in the 1960s, his driver was nearly killed when he experienced a "stuck-throttle" situation that drove him through multiple tire barriers.  Grandpa designed a kill-switch located on the steering wheel for "stuck-throttle" cases. This system didn't find widespread adoption until after crashes attributed to stuck-throttles killed Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin within three months of each other in 2000.  I like to think it's saved at least a few lives since then.

My father and I still both love and watch racing.  It's in the blood.  There's a primal thrill I can't explain.  Right now, we grieve, knowing that this probably won't be the last fatal racing accident we'll see. 

But we hope.

This entry was originally posted at because DW is where I set up crossposting first and I'm lazy. Feel free to comment wherever you prefer. This post has comment count unavailable comments on DW.
Tags: cars, musings, real life
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