Jimmie Johnson, Nascar’s five-time defending champion, said he was “torn up” by Dan Wheldon’s death and that IndyCar should race only on street circuits and road courses rather than on high-speed oval tracks.
Wheldon died two days ago of head injuries suffered during a fiery 15-car crash during a race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The Englishman’s car went airborne at a speed of more than 200 mph (320 kph) and broke apart when it slammed into the safety fence above the outside retaining wall.
Johnson has raced stock cars since 1998 and said he’s uncomfortable with the open-cockpit and open-wheel design of Indy cars. Johnson said while he’s always wanted to compete in the Indianapolis 500 -- a race Wheldon won twice -- he promised his wife he’d never drive an Indy car after the birth of his daughter last year.
“I hate, hate, hate that this tragedy took place,” Johnson, 36, told reporters during a test session at Charlotte Motor Speedway yesterday. “But hopefully they can learn from it and make those cars safer on ovals somehow. 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.”
Oriol Servia of Spain was among the IndyCar drivers who voiced concern about the speeds at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where cars were running practice laps of almost 225 mph.
“We all had a bad feeling about this place in particular just because of the high banking and how easy it was to go flat,” Servia said, referring to cars driving at top speed.
The crash on Oct. 16 occurred 11 laps into the 200-lap race as contact at the rear of the 34-car field caused a chain reaction of collisions. Wheldon’s car was among several that launched into the air after flying up and over other cars. The track was strewn with debris following the crash, ending the race and leading driver Ryan Briscoe to compare the smoking wreckage to a war scene out of the movie “Terminator.”
Drivers and spectators were informed about two hours later that Wheldon had died, leaving behind a wife and two sons under the age of 3. He was 33. The medical examiner’s office in Clark County, Nevada, confirmed last night that Wheldon died of blunt head trauma from the accident.
“Knowing Dan and his wife and two kids, and then I’m sitting there with my daughter running around in the backyard, I was torn up,” Johnson said.
Johnson, who has 55 Nascar wins since 2002 and captured five straight Sprint Cup season titles from 2006-10, said the design of Indy cars offers less protection and makes them less controllable than the stock cars he races.
“There’s very little crumple zone around the driver, it’s an open cockpit and then you add open wheels -- it’s creating situations to get the car off the ground at a high rate of speed,” Johnson said. “And you can’t control the car when it’s off the ground.”
The Las Vegas Indy 300 was the final race of the IndyCar season. The racing league canceled a season-ending championship celebration that was scheduled for yesterday and said it will pay tribute to Wheldon with a public memorial service in Indianapolis at a date to be determined.
“His infectious smile, bubbly personality and big heart made Dan one of the most caring people I had ever met,” IndyCar chief executive Randy Bernard said in a statement. “You could never ask for a better ambassador to a sport.”