IndyCar heads down road NASCAR traveled after death of Dan Wheldon

The Izod IndyCar Series has long wanted an identity. To be known for something that set it apart from NASCAR and drag racing and everything else.

It decided it wanted to be home to the fastest race cars and the most capable drivers, pilots who could handle a road course as skillfully as an oval.

The series appeared to be getting there, making modest gains in popularity.

But the high-bank, speed-inducing ovals might be too much for the series after the death of Dan Wheldon, who died from the injuries he suffered in a 15-car crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday.

The open-wheel cars were going so fast, and the field included drivers who aren't as familiar with each other and the series, that some observers had predicted trouble. Wheldon himself said he was concerned about the speeds.

IndyCar will spend the off-season trying to understand what happened and how to make changes that prevent it, while keeping its identity.

In that sense, it will be much like NASCAR.

Ten years ago, NASCAR made deep changes to the way it thought about driver safety after the death of Dale Earnhardt at Daytona International Speedway. The SAFER barrier and the HANS restraining device were some of the results.

NASCAR invested its credibility in protecting its drivers and emerged from the death of its No. 1 star to the point that the Sprint Cup drivers who will compete at Talladega Superspeedway — the longest, fastest track on the schedule — this weekend will drive with almost total confidence in their safety.

"I wouldn't compare an IndyCar at Las Vegas to Talladega with a stock car," Sprint Cup driver Jeff Gordon said. "They're completely different, polar opposites. Looking at the aerodynamics, the weight of our cars, the fact that there are full fenders, I think NASCAR has implemented some incredible safety features for our cars over the years to allow us to go to Talladega."

NASCAR has had its share of frightening crashes, including a 2009 race at Talladega when Carl Edwards' car went airborne and into the catch fence.

Edwards was protected by the entire body of the car.

The IndyCar that Wheldon was driving Sunday didn't have so much as a roll bar over the cockpit. He was unprotected, save for his helmet, when the car went into the catch fence.

IndyCar no doubt will have a hard time changing the look of the open-wheel rockets, although it was putting the finishing touches on a new, safer design that would have debuted next year.

But the series will have an obligation to listen to its drivers. They will have many ideas about safety, and some might sound off-putting. But none should be discarded without serious thought. It may come down to something as fundamental as reducing speed.

"We've seen stock cars, as well, years ago have to go to a restrictor plate to slow the cars down to keep them from getting airborne," Gordon said. "That's the key, keeping the cars on the ground. An open-wheel car at that speed, it's difficult to do."

NASCAR made it out of a dark hour. Now IndyCar must. Its identity will depend on it. Star-Telegram

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