The death last Sunday of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon was a horrible tragedy.
Unfortunately, there isn't a whole lot that can be done about it.
While I truly feel badly for the Wheldon family – no child should have to grow up without their father – the very real possibility of death is an inherent occupational hazard whenever you strap yourself behind the wheel of a machine that is designed to accelerate past terminal velocity.
Dan Wheldon knew the risks of his chosen profession. His wife of three years, Susie, knew the dangers of the sport as well, having worked as her future husband's personal assistant for several years before their romance blossomed.
Anyone who has watched the sport of auto racing – be it on the Indy Car circuit or NASCAR – is familiar with names such as Dale Earnhardt, Paul Dana, Kenny Irwin, Adam Petty, Scott Brayton, or Aryton Senna. They are just a very small number of the names whose lives ended on a racetrack.
In fact, there have been almost 400 documented deaths in the history of competitive auto racing, either during qualifying, or as with Wheldon, during a race itself. Twelve fatalities have happened at Daytona International Speedway alone; if you count practices, motorcycle races and powerboat events held in the infield lake, that number jumps to a startling 34 fatalities overall.
After the death of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt at Daytona in 2001, several safety improvements were made. Many teams began using six-point safety harnesses rather than their traditional five-point harness. HANS (Head And Neck Support) devices were made mandatory for all NASCAR races. The implementation of so-called "soft walls" were built into tracks so there would be some give when cars spun out of control towards the grandstand.
These were all important and critical safety improvements after the face of the sport was killed in the final turn of its most important race.
And yet drivers kept on getting killed.
In fact, six drivers have died on the Daytona track alone since Earnhardt.
This doesn't make Dan Wheldon's death any less tragic; perhaps it made it more predictable.
There will be a full review of what happened Sunday in Las Vegas. Yes, some of the criticisms are valid. There were too many (34) cars in the race. The high banks of the 1.5 mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway created a greater chance of catastrophe. Many of the drivers were young and inexperienced.
NASCAR superstar Jimmie Johnson said a part of the problem was the racing surface itself. "I wouldn't run them on ovals. There's just no need to," Johnson said this week. "Those cars are fantastic for street circuits, for road courses. I hate, hate, hate that this tragedy took place. But hopefully they can learn from it and make those cars safer on ovals somehow. I don't know how they can really do it."
But even if you fix all of those problems, there will still be the inherent risk of grave bodily injury. Call it the need for speed if you will, but the attraction of watching the how human beings stretch the limit of what machines can do is what fascinates racing fans.
It is part of what fuels the desire to race, along with the crowds and millions of dollars that flow into the sport.
Following the death of Dale Earnhardt, injuries have certainly been cut down because of safety improvements. However, the added pressure to be as fast as possible will always creep back into the garage. Sometimes that pressure clouds otherwise sound judgment when you step back and really take a look at what drivers are asked to so.
Even before Sunday, everyone on the track knew what they were getting themselves into in Las Vegas.
"It's friggin' fast here," Danica Patrick said prior to the green flag dropping. "Almost a 225 lap is like Indy speeds. The track is nice and smooth and we'll be three-wide out there, which will be exciting. The race is going to be crazy and the crashes will be spectacular."
"It's so fast and you're so close to each other, it's exciting," driver Davey Hamilton told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Obviously there was a much more somber tone after the tragedy, with pledges that the IZOD IndyCar World Championship will have to fully review all of their practices to try to make sure this never happens again.
But it will.
It is part of the inevitability of the sport.
Certainly, drivers deserve the safest rides possible. While, as Patrick alludes to, we want to see exciting and even spectacular crashes, no one wants to witness the end of someone else's life. But just as was the case following Earnhardt's death, there may be a tweak or two towards improving safety. But don't fool yourselves into thinking that auto racing will ever be safe.
After all, that is part the allure of the sport in the first place.
Doug Russell has been covering Milwaukee and Wisconsin sports for over 20 years on radio, television, magazines, and now at OnMilwaukee.com.
Over the course of his career, the Edward R. Murrow Award winner and Emmy nominee has covered the Packers in Super Bowls XXXI, XXXII and XLV, traveled to Pasadena with the Badgers for Rose Bowls, been to the Final Four with Marquette, and saw first-hand the entire Brewers playoff runs in 2008 and 2011. Doug has also covered The Masters, several PGA Championships, MLB All-Star Games, and Kentucky Derbys; the Davis Cup, the U.S. Open, and the Sugar Bowl, along with NCAA football and basketball conference championships, and for that matter just about anything else that involves a field (or court, or rink) of play.
Doug was a sports reporter and host at WTMJ-AM radio from 1996-2000, before taking his radio skills to national syndication at Sporting News Radio from 2000-2007. From 2007-2011, he hosted his own morning radio sports show back here in Milwaukee, before returning to the national scene at Yahoo! Sports Radio last July. Doug's written work has also been featured in The Sporting News, Milwaukee Magazine, Inside Wisconsin Sports, and Brewers GameDay.
Doug and his wife, Erika, split their time between their residences in Pewaukee and Houston, TX.