Sometimes a story doesn’t work out. I had planned to write a book about the 2011 IndyCar season as part of National Novel Writing Month, but life — specifically my thesis — intervened. Might as well share the prologue. Enjoy.

Prologue

There is no one to blame for the disheartening event that took place at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on October 16, 2011 – nor should there be. The heartbreaking loss of Dan Wheldon at the age of 33 truly was an accident, caused by a combination of events that managed to happen just wrong and leading to the demise of one of the sport’s underappreciated stars. Assigning blame would be counterproductive, looking for a scapegoat to erase the problem.

The open-wheel action of IndyCar, through its setup, is a sport that defies nature. Its participants rocket at speeds that can exceed 230 mph. There’s a reason we are supposed to abide by speed limits and why everyday cars on the road are limited to speeds that are more than half of that. Going that fast is inherently unsafe.

But the search for speed is part of human endeavor. The only event of the first ancient Olympics was a footrace. Since then, man has always competed in battles to determine who could traverse a distance in the shortest amount of time. Once the tools became viable, the competitions no longer had to be on foot. Instead we competed using horses, boats, hot-air balloons and, of course, racecars.

Once we had our supercharged vehicles, the next step was to tinker with them, goosing extra horsepower and finding that little extra tenth of a mile per hour. This continued throughout the 20th century as the technology in racecars was used to modernize the regular car. However, once the speeds became excessive, such as in 1996 when cars were zooming around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway reaching the breakneck pace of 240 mph, sensibility set in. The cars were eased back, slowing them down and returning to a more manageable cruising speed, yet one that could still inspire awe as they went by in a near blur.

Safety has always been a topic surrounding the sport, and some outstanding measures have been put in place in IndyCar. The cars have been poured over, analyzed to find setups that will maximize driver safety, doing everything they can to make sure that even though the wreck may be spectacular, the chances improve for the driver to avoid major injury or even walk away unscathed. The Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) walls are able to absorb massive amounts of force that could otherwise be put upon the driver. The trained professionals of the safety crews quickly rush to the scene of an accident, treating the drivers immediately on site and getting them the assistance they need at infield care centers located at the tracks.

But when the difference between victory and defeat can literally be in the blink of an eye, the urge for a driver to push himself or herself to the edge is understandable. Hell, it’s downright necessary. Drivers, in vehicles not capable of handling the bump-and-grind action that is seen in stock-car racing (more commonly known as Nascar), are not only hurdling forward at speeds in excess of 200 mph, they are doing so while driving within inches of the cars in front, behind, and to the side. In some cases, such as at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, cars would be driving three wide as they jockeyed for position. Like a prepared grill or pile of kindling, one spark, one tiny misstep, and the whole thing can go up in flames.

Wheldon’s death was almost inevitable in some ways. The circumstances – a national broadcast where the Englishman was in the spotlight as part of a $5 million spectacle – were about as bad as they could be, and the loss will be felt in the years to come as the sport loses another star and a family loses its husband and father. These are the terms that drivers accept when they put on the firesuit, gloves, and helmet and are strapped in to their modern-day chariot. Many drivers admit that it’s a thought that they have to push to the back of their minds – This could be the last time I sit behind the wheel.

The lasting images of the season will be the 14-car pileup during Lap 12 of the league’s season finale. A quartet of storylines – the championship battle between defending champion Dario Franchitti and Will Power, who had come so close to the title the previous year after earning his job in 2010; the farewell to Danica Patrick, who, whether fans liked it or not, was the face of IndyCar and the only woman ever to win a IndyCar race or lead the Indianapolis 500; a underappreciated rookie competition between James Hinchcliffe and JR Hildebrand; and Wheldon’s pursuit of an unprecedented $5 million award (which would have been split between the driver/team and a lucky fan), added to the race after an attempted publicity stunt to introduce drivers from other field into the competition – quickly rendered moot by teary eyes and a solemn announcement from IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard.

“IndyCar is sad to announce that Dan Wheldon passed away from unsurvivable injuries,” Bernard said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with his family today. IndyCar, its drivers, and team owners have decided to end the race. In honor of Dan Wheldon, the drivers have decided to do a five-lap salute in his honor.”

But even without the event that will define IndyCar in 2011, it was a tumultuous year for the sport. IndyCar, looking to gain footing in the racing and sporting panorama long lost to Nascar and other activities ever since the open-wheel racing split in 1996 that created the Indy Racing League (IndyCar’s predecessor) and the now-defunct CART, had a season that had been best known for questionable decisions by rulemakers, backstage dealing that undermined the integrity of the sport, and desperate attempts at publicly, the last of which triggered a domino effect that led to Wheldon being in a racecar in Las Vegas at all.

Looking back at 2011 uncovers the mistakes that the series currently has and what needs to be done to improve it. Looking ahead, 2012 will lead to the introduction of a new car – which will be named after Wheldon for his efforts in the vehicle’s testing and development – and new opportunities for competition among manufacturers. IndyCar will also have to replace its most recognizable star, Patrick. She will be moving on to the bigger bucks of stock car racing, leaving a gap that Wheldon was originally planning to replace.

The sport had its highlights in 2011 as well. Wheldon’s improbable win at Indy after Hildebrand wrecked on the final turn of the final lap will go down as one of the 500’s most improbable endings. In the penultimate race of the season, Ed Carpenter realized his dream of winning a race and was able to share the moment with his team owner and fan favorite Sarah Fisher.

The truth of the matter is that auto racing will likely always be considered a niche activity, held largely on the same plateau that the casual fan regards Major League Soccer or the X Games, for example. That is not inherently a bad thing. The challenge comes in maintain the dignity of the sport while also retaining its audience. It’s why speedway ovals will always be a part of IndyCar. They are “sexier” to the casual audience – we’re all speed freaks, at least a little. There’s nothing sexy about desperation, however, and at times that’s the feeling that the sport gives off, throwing up Hail Marys to get just a little notice while sacrificing what makes the loyal fans love the sport.

As can be seen, the challenges that face the sport are numerous, but there is still hope for open-wheel racing. IndyCar shouldn’t be an endeavor that gets attention in two circumstances. The first being the series’ crown jewel, the Indianapolis 500, which has had to endure its own diminishing place in the sports fan consciousness. The second case is when tragedy strikes.

In the end, though, it is ultimately tragic, and almost ironic, that the sport’s efforts to stave off the death of irrelevance ended with the loss of one of its own.

This was IndyCar in 2011.

Advertisements