Monday, October 17, 2011

RIP Dan Wheldon
June 22, 1978 — October 16, 2011
   Tragedy struck the world of auto racing on Sunday at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway when a 15-car pileup took the life of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon
   Wheldon, who won the 500 and the glass of milk earlier this year, was racing in Las Vegas in an attempt to split a US$5-million prize with a lucky fan. They would share the price if he could win the last race of the season from the last spot on the starting grid. Wheldon had moved up 10 spots at the time of the fatal crash. 
   Upon receiving the news of Wheldon's passing, Indy Car officials and drivers met and decided to end the race immediately. Then then staged a five-lap memorial for their fallen comrade.
   The Jim Murray Memorial Foundation wishes to express its deepest sympathies to Dan's wife Susie, two young sons (Sebastian and Oliver), Sam Schmitt Racing and the rest of the Wheldon family.
   While Jim Murray never interviewed Wheldon, he did spend a great deal of time covering Indy Car and CART racing. The man who wrote "Gentlemen, Start Your Coffins," Murray respected the drivers but questioned the sport.
   So, without further ado, here's Jim Murray's May 21, 1981 column ‘Risking a Life for an Asterisk.’
Please keep the Wheldon family in your prayers.



Risking a Life for an Asterisk

   Indianapolis as an institution really kills me — the 500, I mean. The rules they have for that race are right off the wall. Lewis Carroll would have loved them.
   I mean, the idea is to find the fastest 33 cars in the country, right? Line them up in the order of their speed and drop the green flag?
   They can do that in a weekend. They had to, this year. They can do it in a day if they want. Other races do.
   But they like to spread it over a couple of weekends. You would, too, if you got 200,000 people who pay just to watch.
   So, they put in this rule that the car that went fastest on the first day of qualifying would get the coveted pole. Not the guy who went fastest overall, just the guy who went fastest on the first day. Not the second day, or the third day, or the fourth day. All those guys got was an asterisk, not the pole.
   Guys have died going for the pole. It's worth thousands in prizes, and much more in publicity.
   Well, this year Bobby Unser is sitting on the pole at Indy. He didn't go fastest. Tom Sneva did that. On the same day. Not the second, third, or fourth, but that very day. I told you Lewis Carroll would love these guys. The Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland would understand them perfectly.
   You see, God did make little green apples, and it does rain in Indianapolis in the summertime. Back on the first day of qualifying, it did rain, after A.J. Foyt had the fastest time, 196.078 m.p.h. Now, back in 1970, A.J. Foyt would have sat on the pole — period. But they changed the rules in 1971, and I'll tell you why.
   Back in 1969, a rookie named Leon D. (Jigger) Sirois, in an indifferent car, had gone out to qualify. He turned three laps in a slowish 161 m.p.h. A qualifying run consists of four laps. After the 3-1/2 laps, his pit crew, dissatisfied with the time, waved him in, aborting the run. It started to rain almost as he came in. If he had finished that fourth lap, Jigger would have been on the pole, even though cars behind him would have been 10 m.p.h. faster.
   Poor Jigger was never to make the race any place, never mind the pole, but Indy modified the rules to permit cars "on line" the first day of qualifying to be regarded as "first day" cars in the event rain interrupted, and thus able to pursue the pole after the interruption. That's why Bobby Unser was able to wrest the pole from Foyt with 200.546 m.p.h. this year — even though Sneva went 200.691 that same day.
   Sneva was not considered a "first day" qualifier. Sneva with the fastest car in the race, starts 21st. Twenty slower cars precede him.
   Nor is Sneva the first fastest-qualifier not to win the pole. Eight other cars in history missed the pole with faster times than the pole-sitter. In 1976 Mario Andretti started 19th with faster a time than the 18 cars in front of him.
   One reason for lining up cars in the order of their velocity is safety. Faster cars with faster drivers tend to get impatient moving through a herd of cows. Most of Indy's trouble historically has come from impatient drivers.
   There are other inequities in this system. In 1974 the ultimate winner, Johnny Rutherford, with the second-fastest time, started, not second, but 25th. He was behind cars that were 11 m.p.h. slower. He was back in the caboose of the race with cars which were 17 m.p.h. slower. In a race which takes a little over three hours that means, if they both finished, Rutherford would have beaten that car by 51 miles.
   In 1967, the race was postponed by rain after 19 laps. I sat on the pit wall that day with car owner Andy Granatelli. As the driving rain dripped off his hat and down his poncho, he watched it pelt his turbine car. Water was seeping through a tear line in the plastic and down through the car. I asked Andy why they didn't put the cars in the garage and out of the rain during the postponement.
   "We can't, it's against the rules," Andy told me. "You mean, you gotta sit here and let them get rusted?" I asked. He nodded.
   In 1971, driver Mark Donahue's car broke a gear on the 66th lap. They left it where he parked it. Rules, you know. Nearby was a car driven by Steve Krisiloff that had spun out in lap 12. On lap 167, Mike Moseley and Bobby Unser crashed as Moseley lost a wheel. Moseley was severely injured, crashing into Krisiloff and Donohue's parked cars.
   Well, I wish them Godspeed, those brave fellows at Indy on Sunday. I also wish all those 186 m.p.h. cars in front of him can keep out of the way of Tom Sneva's 200-m.p.h. car. He's going to be in a hurry to get up there where he belongs.

Reprinted with the permission of the Los Angeles Times.

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