Miller comments on Wind Tunnel regarding Wheldon's death
SPEED open wheel reporter Robin Miller joined Dave Despain Sunday evening on Wind Tunnel to offer his perspective on the tragic loss of 2005 IndyCar Series champion Dan Wheldon in Sunday’s IndyCar Series season finale from Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Miller, who has been covering motor sports for 40 years, shared his memories of Wheldon, his views on Indy cars running in excess of 220 miles-per-hour at superspeedways, his thoughts on safety issues facing the series, the impact of Wheldon’s death on the series and other topics.
Following are excerpts from Miller’s interview:
Despain: You’ve covered this type of racing for many years, back when death was the rule and not the exception. Your thoughts on Wheldon? I know you two tangled some, as recently as this week, but you also had some good times together.
Miller: “He was one of those guys that the media gravitated toward because he was pretty quotable but the fans really liked him because he went out of his way to make time for them. When he wasn’t running fulltime, I got emails from people saying, ‘When is Wheldon coming back? He used to come by and have a cookout. He’d come and talk to us and he always was a great guy.’ I just remember him coming up through the ladder, coming up and winning races. He had no money behind him. He just had talent behind him. He was an American success story. Gene Simmons said on Wind Tunnel one night, ‘You need to promote those Americans like Dan Wheldon (a Briton).’ The thing that Wheldon brought to the table was he was a fiercely intense driver, especially on ovals. He kind of got mad at me about a year ago because I said he was kind of an endangered species without having a fulltime ride because he was so good on ovals but not nearly as good on road courses, which was what he grew up on winning races. So, we kind of had a cooling off period but then we got back together this year and it was fun. When I wrote the story Friday that he was going to Michael Andretti’s next year to take Danica’s (Patrick) Go Daddy ride, he asked me, ‘What are you doing that to me for? Couldn’t you wait until Monday to write that story? All these people are coming up to me and now I’ve got to lie to all these people.’ So, I just think he was one of those guys who moved to St. Petersburg and he became kind of an American hero. He always was one of those guys that people liked to cheer for.”
Despain: Racing has become dramatically safer but we were reminded today it still is dangerous. The inevitable question out of this is whether the type of racing we saw today is too dangerous, and if so, what is to be done about it?
Miller: “Way too dangerous. I’ve been writing stories since the ‘90s that this kind of insanity, this wide-open mile-and-a-half pack racing … We got lucky. Kenny Brack’s crash was on the backstretch at Texas and all that stuff went in the grandstands but there was nobody there. Ryan Briscoe was in turn three at Chicago and didn’t hit anybody and they both were able to survive. But when you’re on top of each other and these cars are so stuck and they’re going 220 miles-per-hour, and you can’t get out of the throttle because someone will run over the top of you, it’s not racing. It’s like a big game of chicken. Adrian Fernandez was here this weekend and he was smart enough to quit in 2004 because he said, ‘That ain’t racing. I’m not getting involved in it anymore.’ He was in the IRL a couple of years. He said he’s never seen the drivers as anxious and nervous as they were before the start of this race. He said, ‘I’m not talking about one or two. I’m talking about every guy I talked to.’ So, racing is inherently dangerous. When I grew up in the ‘60s, it seemed like it happened every other week in USAC, but the most important thing to remember is these tracks were built for NASCAR stock cars that are going 50 or 60 miles-per-hour slower. When you’ve got pack racing and you rub wheels with somebody and you get somebody out of shape and there’s 25 cars bearing down on you, there’s no driver reaction, there’s no way to survive it.”
Despain: So, is there a fix that enables Indy cars to continue racing on those type tracks? If you take away those types of tracks, oval Indy car racing becomes a one-race deal – the Indy 500.
Miller: “Exactly. We’ve lost Milwaukee, Phoenix and maybe Loudon – the three tracks that are real oval tracks where the drivers have to drive. If you’re going to stay on these mile-and-a-half bowls built for NASCAR, you’ve got one option. You go back to the Handford Device like they used to have in CART in the late ‘90s. It made the cars pass each other. It allowed cars to slingshot each other past. You didn’t run next to each other in a big pack. Guys were passing each other. There were 165 passes at Michigan once. They’ve shown you can run at Michigan and Fontana and big tracks like this and still put on a show and make it relatively safe. But you can’t do that. I was talking to Steve Horne tonight and he said, ‘This is a fixable problem but it has to be fixed immediately. You can’t do this again until the problem is fixed.’ You either fix the problem or you quit racing at places like this and you become a road course and street course circuit highlighted by the Indy 500.”
Despain: 15 cars involved, four of them airborne to some degree, and the catchfence involved, is it not noteworthy that 14 of those drivers walked away? When you compare that to the performance of Indy cars 10 or 20 years ago, that’s a pretty remarkable accomplishment of its own as we look ahead to those 2012 chassis.
Miller: “No doubt about it but I also think it plays into the fact that some of these drivers don’t have much experience on an oval; and they don’t have much experience at 200 miles-per-hour; and a lot of them have never spent a night in the hospital; and they didn’t drive a sprint car midget and run over somebody’s wheel. They don’t understand what happens when you interlock wheels in an open wheel race car. So, the bravery factor really goes up because it’s easy to go flat-out on a track like this (Las Vegas Motor Speedway). Well, guess what? That is a recipe for disaster, and thankfully, the cars are 50 times more safe than they were back in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. But at the same time … I said Thursday afternoon watching practice that I didn’t even want to watch practice. It was frightening to watch them run three abreast going through the corner. They’re down in the corner going 224 miles-per-hour. What happens if you puncture a tire or the suspension breaks? You don’t even have a chance. Racing should be about the drivers braking, getting in and out of the throttle, handling traffic. That’s what oval racing was built on.”
Despain: We have this tremendous increase in safety overall over the years … I’m curious about how the society has changed over time. The tolerance for the kind of thing that happened today isn’t what it once was. Sure, there was the little bump in interest that NASCAR got when Dale Earnhardt died. He was a national hero and everyone knew who he was. I’m wondering what the impact – not just his death – but the decision not to finish the face and the season ending on such an incredible down note – is on the series. How big a hit is this for the series?
Miller: “Good point. It’s a big point because you think you have some momentum – you’ve got new cars, new engines, kind of a new attitude, if you will, and when you watched the drivers walk into the drivers’ meeting and talked to them after the red flag, I told my camera man, Jim, ‘They don’t want to race and they’re going to tell them they don’t want to race,’ and out of respect to Dan, they ran the five laps. It was impressive that the people who stuck around stood and applauded and all the fans got up and saluted him at the end. But look at the people who die every year in football. I know that’s probably apples and oranges, but the thing is we kind of get used to this. In racing, we’re not used to it anymore. It used to be commonplace that fatalities were a part of racing and guys would look at each other in the first picture of the year and say, ‘How many of you guys will be around next year?’ We’ve kind of been numbed down to the fact that guys might break their arm or leg but no one’s going to lose their life.”