Mario Andretti On Wheldon, Safety Of IndyCar And The State IndyCar

Versatile racing legend Mario Andretti joined Dave Despain Sunday night on Wind Tunnel on SPEED to reflect on Dan Wheldon’s life, and to discuss safety issues facing the IndyCar Series and the stability of the series following Wheldon’s death one week ago at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Following is a transcript of the interview:

Despain: Tell me how you’re going to remember Dan Wheldon.

Andretti:“Well, specifically, when he first started driving for Michael (Andretti), you could immediately see his personality, laid-back to some degree. Always had something interesting and funny to say. I know how he was always kidding around with Marco (Andretti) and so on and so forth. So again, he was popular because he was so outgoing like that and that’s really what we all remember."

Despain: It’s been a difficult week and a lot has been written. For example, the huge field of 34 cars entered and about that $5 million bonus Dan could win if he won that race. In your mind, what role did any of those elements play in this disaster?

Andretti: “First of all, the $5 million bonus, absolutely not. Knowing any driver at this level, you run just as hard whether it’s $5 or $5 million, so that doesn’t play whatsoever. The amount of cars – since you don’t have 34 cars at every race, you might think you’d have more inexperienced drivers and since you’re running in such a tight pack formation, the slightest miscue could create what it did. There’s something to be said for that, I would suspect. I think it’s the formula in itself – the cars being so equal – is probably the biggest problem at the moment."

Despain: Let’s talk about the assertion that Indy cars shouldn’t run on ovals. I don’t think those statistics – three fatalities in 15 years prove that there’s not a problem. Which ones are okay and which ones are too dangerous in your opinion?

Andretti:“It’s more than the tracks themselves, I think it’s the cars. I think there should be more freedom in the aerodynamic package such as the wing angle and whether you want to run a wicker or not should be up to the driver and of course the engineer. I think there would be much more disparity that way. The other point also that we’ve been talking about this for some time – take some aerodynamics out of the car and also increase the power. There’s no magic wand for any of the formulas but I think that’s more of a proven setup than what we have now. … I almost disagree to some degree that we shouldn’t go to mile-and-a-half ovals because what it did for Texas also in the aerodynamics of the car and the small changes they made, made that race okay because it’s not easy to be even two abreast. So, that’s really the goal – to try to reduce, make the cars harder to drive and I think that should be the objective going forward."

Despain: Are some ovals okay for IndyCar and some not? What changes would you make if you were in charge of IndyCar? Is it realistic on a banked mile-and-a-half to get where drivers have to lift or is that beyond the scope of the solution?

Andretti: “No, I think absolutely you can achieve that. I really feel that if you have enough power where you don’t reach terminal speed so early, where you have acceleration, you’re going to have to back off. With the turbo-charged engines coming on next year, I think some of that could be easily achievable. Even the new car that Dan was testing – the feature of the rear wheels somewhat covered I think is a great feature that will minimize the potential of the cars climbing over one other and of course being a launching pad was the biggest problem in this particular incident. Again, a lot of things already in place. It’s just a matter of sort of tuning a few things and like any other situation, you always learn something and it’s unfortunate that it has to be a figure of this importance, I should say, that would motivate us, the sanctioning bodies and everybody else, to really get something done."

Despain: What about the suggestion of closed cockpits for oval racing?

Andretti: “I’m afraid I’m too much of a purist. If you’re going to have a closed cockpit, then you’re going to prototypes and stock cars. I think this is the purest form of the sport. Obviously I’m all for a lot of changes but you don’t take the character, the total character, away from it."

Despain: Last week’s tragedy was a big blow for IndyCar racing, which is trying so desperately to regain its audience. How big of a blow do you think it was and how do you feel about IndyCar’s momentum and prospects for the future?

Andretti: “I think the momentum is there and unfortunately, something like this leaves a bit of a sour taste, especially going into the off-season. But IndyCar will still be strong and I think Dan Wheldon is the one who paid, actually, the highest, the ultimate price, and is contributing in some ways to bring awareness back to the sport. The sport is placed very well. The safety aspect is in place and obviously it’s a job that will never be done. It’s a work in progress and that’s the main thing. A lot of good things are in place already and they will continue to get better."

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