Monday, October 17, 2011
Updated: October 18, 12:14 PM ET
Jimmie Johnson: No more ovals
ESPN.com news services
CONCORD, N.C. -- One day after the death of reigning Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon in a fiery crash in Las Vegas, five-time defending NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson said it's time for IndyCar to stop racing on ovals.
Johnson said he was glued to his television Sunday watching the coverage of the IndyCar season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway when Wheldon was killed in a 15-car pileup.
Johnson said he believes the IndyCar cars are built for street circuits and road courses, and drive too fast to race on ovals. He says the car is not built to withstand the bumping that occurs on ovals.
"I wouldn't run them on ovals. There's just no need to," Johnson said Monday during a test session at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "Those cars are fantastic for street circuits, for road courses. I hate, hate, hate that this tragedy took place. But hopefully they can learn from it and make those cars safer on ovals somehow.
"I don't know how they can really do it. Myself, 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."
Johnson was in his own frightening accident Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, when his car hit headfirst into the wall. The back wheels briefly lifted off the track, but Johnson walked away and suffered only next-day soreness.
He's always wanted to race in the Indianapolis 500, but when his daughter was born last year, Johnson said he promised his wife he would not drive an IndyCar. The combination of the speeds and the car design -- an IndyCar has an open cockpit and open wheels that can't withstand the bumping that occurs on ovals -- has made him gun shy about racing cars that don't have a roof.
"Their average was 225? I've never been 225 mph in my life -- and that's their average around an oval. They are brave men and women that drive those things," Johnson said. "There's very little crumple zone around the driver, it's an open cockpit and then you add open wheels -- it's just creating situations to get the car off the ground at a high rate of speed. And you can't control the car when it's off the ground."
Wheldon died 11 laps into the final race of the season in the IndyCar series. After the crash, IndyCar officials decided to call the race. Drivers who avoided the accident, many sobbing openly, did a five-lap tribute to Wheldon.
Monday in England, Wheldon's father Clive spoke about his son, calling him "a true champion and a gentleman."
"Daniel was born to be a racer and yesterday left us doing what he loved to do," he said Monday outside the family home in the village of Emberton.
Wheldon's loss was felt most sharply Monday in the auto racing fraternity, which has long recognized his talent starting from his youth as a kart driver, and in Emberton, a village in Buckinghamshire -- a county just north of London -- where he grew up and where parents Clive and Sue still live.
"The family would like to thank everyone for their overwhelming outpouring of sympathy," said Clive, reading slowly from a statement and flanked by sons Austin and Ashley. "He was a true champion and a gentleman on and off the track."
A floral tribute was placed in the heart of the village.
"R.I.P. Dan. You'll be missed champ," read one of the messages.
At Sunday's race in Las Vegas, Wheldon started at the back of the 34-car field, but couldn't steer clear of a wreck that appeared to start when Wade Cunningham's car swerved on the track and JR Hildebrand drove over the left rear of Cunningham's car. Hildebrand appeared to go airborne, and Cunningham's car shot up into the wall, setting off a chain reaction among the cars behind him.
Some of those cars slowed, others didn't, and others spun in front of Wheldon and Will Power. There was so much chaos on the track it was hard to tell who was driving what car.
Power appeared to fly over Alex Lloyd's car, rolling into what's called the catch fence, which sits over a barrier that's designed to give a bit when cars make contact, and landing on its right side. His in-car camera showed one of the front tires coming toward him in the cockpit.
Wheldon then appeared to drive over a car driven by Paul Tracy, who seemed to be slowing down. Video replays showed Wheldon's car turning over as it went airborne and sailed into the catch fence. Rescue workers were at Wheldon's car quickly, some furiously waving for more help to get to the scene.
Wheldon was airlifted from the Las Vegas track at 1:19 p.m. local time Sunday and taken to University Medical Center, becoming the first IndyCar driver to die on the track since rookie Paul Dana was killed in practice on the morning of race day at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2006.
Wheldon, 33 and the 2005 series champion, was competing in only his third IndyCar race of the season, trying to win the race and earn a $5 million bonus that was part of a league promotion for any driver who didn't compete full-time in the series this year. Those drivers would have to start at the back of the pack and win the race.
Wheldon was the only driver to accept the challenge, though Monday, NASCAR driver Kasey Kahne said he was intrigued by the idea.
"I was absolutely thinking about it,'' Kahne said. "Mr. [Rick] Hendrick [his team owner] didn't want me doing it. ... Driving an IndyCar is something I've always wanted to do and definitely thought about doing it for that race. It just didn't work out.''
Kahne said he's been numb since learning that Wheldon was killed.
"Really, all I can really think about is that,'' Kahne said. "I just think about his family and his friends and things they're probably going through ... losing somebody like that ... I woke up this morning and that was all that was on my mind.''
Said Hendrick of Kahne's request:
"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. 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 on the [NASCAR Sprint] Cup side. 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"
Two other drivers sent to the hospital after Sunday's crash had their conditions updated on Monday. Hildebrand was released from University Medical Center in Las Vegas after suffering a bruised sternum. And Pippa Mann had surgery on a severely burned right pinkie finger and will require additional surgery, according to her team.
Wheldon's family thanks everyone for their condolences, messages of sympathy and support at this very sad time, according to a statement released by his agency, GP Sports Management Ltd.
"They will make a further statement in due course, but in the meantime have asked that they be allowed to grieve in private," the statement said.
Dana's widow, Tonya Bergeson-Dana, told ESPN's "Outside The Lines" on Monday that she wanted Wheldon's family to know "there are people who know, to a degree, what they're going through and that we're here for them."
Bergeson-Dana added: "A common misperception is that they're in it for that feeling of danger -- that was not the case with Paul, he was in it for the challenge. The challenge was in getting the most out of himself and out of the car. It was not about the danger, it was about the possibilities of what could be accomplished."
She added: "One thing that Paul's accident, in which he hit debris, and Dan's had in common was that they were hard to predict. In both cases, somebody spun in front of them and they got caught up in situations beyond control."
Sunday, Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation president and CEO Jeff Belskus issued a statement, saying: "We are incredibly saddened at the passing of Dan Wheldon. He was a great champion of the Indianapolis 500 and a wonderful ambassador for the race, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and all of motorsports. Most importantly, he was a fantastic husband, father and man -- a good friend to so many in this sport. His memory will live forever at the Speedway, both through the magnitude of his accomplishments on the track and his magnetism off the track."
Wheldon, who came to the United States from England in 1999, won 16 times in his IndyCar career and was the series champion in 2005, the year he won his first of two Indianapolis 500 titles.
Despite winning this year's Indy 500, Wheldon couldn't put together a full-time ride this season. He landed in this race thanks to IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard's promise of $5 million to any moonlighting driver who could win the IndyCar season finale at Vegas. Although there were no takers, Bernard refused to scrap the idea and Wheldon was declared eligible for the prize.
Drivers had been concerned about the high speeds at the track, where they were hitting nearly 225 mph during practice.
Information from ESPN.com senior writer Terry Blount and David Newton, ESPN Enterprise Unit producer Willie Weinbaum and The Associated Press was used in this report.