Earlier this week, I was asked to write an Op-ed column for the New York Times. In the wake of Dan Wheldon's tragic end, the Times wanted a brief (700-800 words) editorial to explain the economics of racing to the vast majority of their readers who aren't motorsports fans. In addition, they wanted an answer to the question "did the $5 million bounty contribute to Dan Wheldon's death?"
It was a task I was honored to tackle.
But, it seems my "Op" (insisting the bonus did not play a role in his death) didn't match their "Ed" (they say most of their readers hold the opposite view), and the column was not put into print.
I'm not posting the editorial with the intent of exacerbating the finger-pointing and misplaced anger that has taken place since the crash. If you disagree, please let me know, but do so like an adult. If you want to rage, do so elsewhere. This is merely an attempt to place the incident into a wider perspective.
The column might seem elementary to those well-versed in modern motorsports, but I did my best to explain the basics in as few words as possible. See what you think.
UPDATED: Thanks a hundred times over for the use of this stunning photo of Dan Wheldon, taken by Tony Di Zinno for IndyCar Magazine the morning after Wheldon's first Indianapolis 500 victory in 2005. You can see more of Tony's work at: http://www.dizinno.co.uk (Click the image for a larger view.)
In motorsports, race teams chase millions of dollars while drivers fight for hundredths of a second and sanctioning bodies race behind each, hoping to preserve order. And save lives. Sometimes, the race behind the race ends in tragedy. On Sunday, Dan Wheldon died after a 15-car crash during the Izod IndyCar Series race at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Now many are asking if a $5 million bonus Wheldon was eligible to win contributed to his death.
The IndyCar series has been on an upswing recently after a long, difficult period of smaller crowds and declining television ratings after an ugly feud split the sport into two look-alike racing series in the mid-1990s. As NASCAR collected sponsors and billion-dollar television contracts in the 2000s, IndyCar struggled to maintain relevance.
In early 2010, Randy Bernard was hired as the CEO of IndyCar, tasked to bring sponsors and television viewers as he had done previously as CEO of Professional Bull Riders Inc. Lumbered with a long-term television contract with the Versus cable network (now a part of NBC Sports Network), a small number of successful races outside of Indianapolis and an economy in repose, Bernard helped bring General Motors back into the sport, as turbocharged Chevrolet engines will compete wheel-to-wheel with Honda (the sole engine supplier since 2006) and Lotus in 2012. IndyCar also headlined a new Labor Day weekend race through the streets of downtown Baltimore, which featured enthusiastic capacity crowds.
After a successful 100th Anniversary running of the Indianapolis 500 in May, Bernard’s biggest promotion focused on the series finale in Las Vegas. Hoping to entice a qualified NASCAR, X-Games or Formula One star, he created a $5 million bounty for an interloping driver who could win the race. When there were no takers, Bernard offered to split the bounty between a fan and Wheldon, winner of the 2011 Indianapolis 500. Despite his victory in the biggest race of the year, Wheldon had been unable to secure a full-time drive this season.
Because prize money alone cannot cover the immense cost of entry (a mid-field IndyCar budget is estimated to be $7 - $10 million per car/driver), sponsorship dollars pay the majority of the costs. Drivers who can bring a sponsor or considerable family wealth to a team often compete with potentially more talented drivers who lack such backing. When the economy falters and sponsorship dollars become scarce, the racing industry is impacted more than other sports.
Wheldon moved to the U.S. from England in 1999, showing enough skill and personality to be hired by one of the top IndyCar teams, Andretti Green Racing, in 2002. Wheldon became the 2005 IndyCar Champion, winning six races including the Indianapolis 500. The following year, he signed with Target Chip Ganassi Racing, one of the two top teams (along with Penske Racing). After two seasons of diminishing results, Wheldon was replaced by another series champion, Dario Franchitti.
Wheldon moved to the smaller Panther Racing team, but without the resources of the bigger teams his on-track success waned. Before the 2011 season, Wheldon was replaced by a talented rookie driver whose paycheck was likely much less, leaving Wheldon on the sidelines.
For the Indy 500, a tiny team owned by Bryan Herta (Wheldon’s friend and former teammate) signed Wheldon to drive, scraping together enough sponsorship for one race. The car was fast, but few expected Wheldon to contend for victory. Yet, with a sound pit strategy, Wheldon was running second on the final lap when J.R. Hildebrand, the driver who had replaced him at Panther, crashed in the final turn, handing the win to Wheldon.
Without a full-time drive, Wheldon spent the last weeks of his life as test driver, helping develop an all-new racecar for the 2012 season. The new IndyCar design features a long list of safety improvements to reduce horrific crashes. (The new chassis will now be named in Wheldon’s honor.) The morning of his death, Wheldon had agreed to a fully sponsored ride for 2012 with Andretti Autosport.
Auto racing is a sport, but more prominently, it is a business. No part of the business is untouched by money. Not speed. Not safety. In the past decade, IndyCar led the industry with a number of safety innovations for both the cars and racetracks, and Wheldon is the first fatality since 2006, a span of 101 races.
But, did money change how Wheldon drove in Sunday’s race?
No matter the prize money, racecar drivers accept considerable risks every time they climb into the car. Their goal is singular: win the race. Racing legend Mario Andretti tweeted Tuesday afternoon: “Dan Wheldon did not take mad risk because he was over-motivated by $5 mil prize. To imply he drove different due to $$, you offend his honor.”