In the aftermath of Dan Wheldon’s death, it’s natural to begin wondering if more could have been done to prevent the tragic accident. Fans and media members alike start to call for changes to make things safer for the drivers, who put their lives on the line every time they strap into a race car. Most of us don’t know what it is like to be behind the wheel at 200+ MPH. And while that doesn’t discount our calls for increased safety, it certainly affects their weight. But, when a five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion says something, it carries much more weight.
At a test session at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Jimmie Johnson said :
I wouldn’t run [IndyCar] on ovals. There’s just no need to. 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. Myself, I have a lot of friends that race in that series, and I’d just rather see them on street circuits and road courses. No more ovals. … Their average was 225? I’ve never been 225 mph in my life – and that’s their average around an oval. They are brave men and women that drive those things. There’s very little crumple zone around the driver, it’s an open cockpit and then you add open wheels – it’s just creating situations to get the car off the ground at a high rate of speed. And you can’t control the car when it’s off the ground.
Johnson makes very valid points. To put things in perspective, this graphic  shows the difference between an Indy car and a stock car. The most noticeable difference is the weight. A stock car weighs 3,400 – 3,450 lbs, compared to 1,525 – 1,600 lbs for an Indy car. Yet, a stock only produces 100 more HP than an Indy car. An Indy car’s light weight and aerodynamic shape in combination with long straightaways and banked corners makes them capable of achieving speeds in excess of 220 MPH on ovals.
At speeds that high, drivers have thousandths of a second to react, which leaves no margin for error.
In 2004, Rusty Wallace tested a stock car without a restrictor plate at Talladega Superspeedway. He reached a top speed of 228 MPH. He said afterwards:
There’s no way we could be out there racing at those speeds… it would be insane to think we could have a pack of cars out there doing that.
But, that’s what happens at every Indy oval. That’s what happened at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
It’s not realistic to expect IndyCar to stop racing at ovals. I don’t think Johnson expects it either. He was reacting based on his emotion and the loss of a fellow racer. As the emotions subside as time passes, Johnson will surely see why that is highly unlikely. Instead, Indy should focus on making the cars safer and tracks safer; much like NASCAR did after the tragic death of Dale Earnhardt.