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For safety's sake, the IndyCar "pack racing" era must end

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In the early spring of the year 2000, there was a small, yet vocal group of journalists who were ramping up the rhetoric in NASCAR circles about the dangers faced by stock car drivers on the track.

We were not popular with the series, many of the drivers and teams, or indeed the traditionalists in the fan base - and at the time, the ratio of traditionalists to progressives was about as balanced as the ratio of atheists in the Bible Belt. We were making a stink about soft walls, which the conventional wisdom called both "impractical" and "unnecessary," and increased driver safety, which NASCAR adamantly regarded as the sole domain of the drivers and teams who they officially regarded as "independent contractors" for liability purposes.

I didn't personally receive the volume of criticism that other writers like Ed Hinton got for what was written in those days - at the time, I was a guppy in an ocean. But I got enough to be called "reactionary" at best, and "pansy" and other emasculating epithets at worst, for daring to suggest that, as one commenter put it, "drivers are not adults who choose their professions and understand the risks."

In those days, change in NASCAR came at a glacial pace unless it involved politics and money. A car measurement could be changed on a race-by-race basis to satisfy a complaining manufacturer, but a driver's personal protective gear was his choice and he was expected to live - or die - by his selections. Safety was something that was personal responsibility for competitors and the tracks - not the sanction.

People started to question that position when Neil Bonnett and Rodney Orr died within days of each other in 1994. The rumblings died down somewhat in the subsequent years, but then they resurfaced again when John Nemechek perished at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 1997.

It wasn't until 2000 that the dam burst and the battle lines were drawn. There came what fighter pilots tend to call a bad string. In the space of less than a year, four stock car drivers - ARCA's Scott Baker, NASCAR Winston Cup drivers Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin, and NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series driver Tony Roper - all died in similar fashion of massive head injuries brought about by high-speed impacts with unshielded concrete walls.

Incredibly, the hue and cry seemed not to move NASCAR beyond vague guarantees that they were "looking into the matter." The Indianapolis Motor Speedway began research into what would become the SAFER barrier, and drivers like Brett Bodine and Kyle Petty adopted early versions of the HANS device. Bodine and Petty were ridiculed for it, even by their peers - most notably Dale Earnhardt, who made comments including the perennial favorite "candy-asses."

Then Earnhardt himself was killed. That's when everything - belatedly, finally, blessedly - changed.

That experience ten years ago informs my opinions today and has spurred this article at a time when people will criticize me for picking at still-fresh wounds. I have always regretted that I was not more vocal back in 2000, but that regret pales in comparison to what I feel today.

I feel regret - and anger - at myself for not having spoken up more vocally about IndyCar pack racing on banked ovals. Yes, I have said many times that I don't like it, but only in the sense of expressing a personal opinion. No serious debate has ever arisen over the way current-spec IndyCars race in clusters, unable to separate themselves because of aerodynamic similarities and practically begging every lap for the type of horrifying accident that finally happened in Las Vegas.

In past years, those of us labeled the "complainers" have been vocal about other issues - the worrisome tendency of the IR03 Dallaras to take flight with little provocation, rear-end impacts that caused serious back injuries because of driver position and the gearboxes on the cars, and so forth - but there has been virtually no internal second-guessing about IndyCar's version of restrictor-plate racing.

Part of this, I think, is because for years during the Split criticism of IndyCar oval racing was seen as political maneuvering from "the other side." Indeed, since this kind of oval racing was a founding precept of the Indy Racing League, questioning its validity could be seen as an attack at the very fundamentals of the league.

Then, too, there were the passionate die-hard ovalistas, who already felt like they were under siege from a horde of road- and street-racing aficionados who were trying to strip their very heritage away from them. Bolstering their position was the nail-biting action of these pack races that led to headline-worthy photo finishes; they argued that pack racing was the only thing getting the series into the next day's news.

The pack racing itself is a direct result of the series moving to a single chassis and engine combination over the past decade. The disparity between different powerplants and chassis aerodynamics packages that had the effect of separating the pack at speed was gone, and because of the IRL's high-downforce, low-horsepower formula the cars began clustering into pockets of two-, three-, and even four-wide dicing for position.

That kind of action is certainly thrilling, there is no doubt about that. The danger is the addictive element for those watching it. It is why restrictor-plate racing in NASCAR - which the drivers almost universally abhor - is some of the most popular action on that circuit.

The thing about NASCAR restrictor plate racing is that it is done at over 40mph slower speeds than IndyCar runs, and the drivers are encased by five-point belts, "capsule" style safety seats, full roll cages, and fendered wheels. The danger is therefore mitigated somewhat - somewhat - by all of that protection and the slower speeds. Still, an accident in a restrictor plate race usually involves dozens of cars who cannot stop in time to avoid it, and cars still do get up in the air and into catchfences even with all of the safety measures in place.

Before I go any further, the Dallara race car that INDYCAR has used for the balance of the decade is one of the safest open-wheel race cars ever built. IndyCar drivers have walked away from - or at least survived - impacts that have been truly horrifying (as Davey Hamilton and Kenny Brack will readily attest). The work INDYCAR and Dallara have put into the car's safety has been superb on the whole.

But the IR03 - and the IR12 that will replace it next year - was never designed for 220mph-plus pack racing. In reality, no open-wheel race car ever built was designed for it. The catastrophic results of wheel-to-wheel contact at those speeds, together with the vulnerability of the open cockpit to intrusion by elements such as wheels, suspensions, catchfence poles, and fire, make close-quarters pack racing a tragedy waiting to happen.

For years, though, most of us fell prey to the impulse to discount the possibility of something like what happened at Las Vegas this weekend. We called it frightening, we called it dangerous, but we never called it stupid and unnecessary. We did not do so because of the results, because of the fear of alienating our fellow fans... and maybe because we feared inviting the very thing we dreaded to come to pass.

For me, the sickest feeling I have about Dan Wheldon's passing is that it was inevitable. In the aftermath, my nightmares have been filled with the number of times I have muttered to myself, "Someone is going to get killed doing this someday," without having expressed it more vocally. I was afraid that people in the sport who know more than I do would discredit me for not knowing what I was talking about, that they would say I was a panic-mongerer, that I would look like a boy who cried wolf.

Yes, I am aware of how selfish that is. That realization stabs at me, gnaws at my very core. I am guilty of a crime of silence, committed because of puerile, self-serving motivations. It is a guilt I will have to live with for the rest of my life; no matter how ineffectual my efforts might have been had I spoken out, at least I would have made the effort. Now my chance is gone.

But at least I have the chance to say something now, and so I will say it. NASCAR drivers like to say that at restrictor-plate races, the "Big One" is not a question of "if," but "when." Similarly, a fatal accident brought on by IndyCar pack racing was inevitable... and it will happen again if immediate steps are not taken to address the situation. There is no uncertainty about it. Someone else will die or be brutally injured because of this kind of racing... it is only a matter of time.

What can be done? I will leave that to brighter minds than mine. Maybe they will shrink the wings so that drivers cannot be so brave in close quarters. Perhaps they will either close the cockpits or make them far less vulnerable to intrusion like Top Fuel dragsters. The consolation I have is that INDYCAR is full of people who are not afraid to make changes if they have the proper motivation; I cannot think of a better one than to make sure that our sport does not lose another Dan Wheldon.

This was hard for me to write - almost as hard as the blog I wrote immediately after Dan's death - as much for the content as for the fact that it is still so soon after Dan died. Some will be furious with me for publishing it. They will say it is too soon for such things.

For my part, I am devastated and crushed by the knowledge that, for Dan Wheldon, it is too late.