After racing death, driver says sport needs changes

After racing death, driver says sport needs changes


by TONY BURBECK / NewsChannel 36 Staff

Bio | Email | Follow: @TonyWCNC

Posted on October 17, 2011 at 2:45 PM

Updated Monday, Oct 17 at 5:42 PM

CONCORD, N.C. -- NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson says it’s time to stop having IndyCar races on ovals in the wake of two-time Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon’s death.

Fellow IRL driver Max Papis says the cars are safe, but the way the races are driven needs to change.

It was the last race of the IndyCar season. A $5 million prize was on the line.

Papis, with Germain Racing, was there racing trucks and talking to fellow IndyCar drivers about driving 230 miles an hour on a mile and a half oval at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

"I could feel they were really nervous,” Papis said.  "No differentiation on speed between cars, and that's what everyone was complaining about.”

Friend and two-time Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon were included in that bunch.

"These IndyCars travel around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in excess of 230 miles an hour and they need to be safe,” Wheldon told Extra before the race.

Tragedy happened just a few minutes into the 300-mile race.

Wheldon got tangled in a 15 car pileup, flew over another car and hit the catch fence.  The crash killed him.  Drivers describe it as one of the worst crashes they’ve ever seen.

Papis, who's driven 115 IRL races, says IRL cars are safe.  He says the wide open, pedal to the medal, less horsepower, more down-force, pack racing was part of the problem.

"When your goal is never let off and if you let off they run you over, there is just more bravery involved and that's what I think has to change in open wheel,” Papis said.

NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson says it's time for IndyCars to stop racing oval tracks.

"If it's off the ground, you can't control it in an accident and those cars are going so fast and get airborne frequently on ovals that I wouldn't run them on ovals.  There's no need to,” Johnson said.

“There’s very little crumple zone around the driver. Obviously it’s an open cockpit and you have open wheels.  You’re just creating situations to get the car off the ground at a high rate of speed.”

Johnson says that type of racing is too much to risk for his family.

Family is what Papis also talked to Weldon about before Wheldon died.

"We were actually talking with Dan on Friday about how special it is to have our kids,” Papis said.

Next year, IRL cars will have a new chassis to help with safety.

Still, drivers know the risk, and as Papis said, you love the sport or you drop it.

Papis says he'd like to see IndyCar racing take the $5 million Wheldon could have won if he went from last to first and set up a trust fund for Wheldon's wife and kids.