Justin Wilson had been airlifted out of the track earlier that day after being hit in the head with a piece of debris from another car. He was in a coma, fighting for his life, and Kanaan’s wife was one of many who wondered why the drivers were putting their lives on the line week after week. Lauren Kanaan pointed out that her husband had won the Indianapolis 500, accomplished all of his goals, and earned a very nice living in 18 years of American open-wheel racing.
His answer was simple.
“No one puts a gun to our heads and makes us do this,” Kanaan said. “We’re not rich, but we certainly won’t starve if I don’t do this. But I do it because I can’t live without it.”
That’s the mentality of drivers, and none put themselves in as much danger as they do in the IndyCar Series. Wilson died Monday night from his injuries, just four years after Dan Wheldon was killed in the IndyCar season finale in a horrific crash.
Wilson’s death from what by all accounts was simply a fluke accident has again thrust the series into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons, and it comes as IndyCar heads into Sunday’s season finale looking to crown a new champion.
Six drivers are eligible for the title, including points leader Juan Pablo Montoya, who returned to IndyCar last season after stints in NASCAR and Formula One. His comeback year has included a second win in the Indianapolis 500, 15 years after his first victory.
Montoya takes a 34-point lead into Sonoma, California, over Graham Rahal, an American having a breakout year. He has two wins driving for his father’s race team and seeks to give the Rahal name its first title since his father’s 1992 championship.
All that could be overshadowed by Wilson’s death in a year IndyCar has seemingly bounced from one crisis to another.
IndyCar had to cancel its opener in Brazil over a promoter issue. The season began with a good race in Florida, but it was marred by the debut of the cars’ new aerodynamic bodykits, which proved too brittle for even the slightest contact. The streets of St. Petersburg were littered with broken parts and pieces, and a chunk of debris sailed over the grandstands and struck a pedestrian. IndyCar required Honda and Chevrolet to make structural upgrades.
Two weeks later, the inaugural race in New Orleans was a rainy, caution-filled train wreck. And the lead-up to the showcase Indianapolis 500 was marred by three accidents in which cars went airborne, and a fourth incident in which James Hinchcliffe nearly bled to death when his leg was punctured by a broken piece of a crashed car.
It led to frantic rule changes before the race in which Honda grudgingly agreed to design changes it felt only the Chevrolet cars needed.
One month later, the rules package for Fontana, California was so aggressive that drivers openly complained the racing was too dangerous. They put on a spectacular show that day, but in front of a crowd of less than 10,000 people. The track won’t return to the schedule next season, and IndyCar has since implemented a conduct policy that prohibits drivers from speaking negatively about the series.
Just last month, IndyCar’s competition chief, Derrick Walker, said he was quitting at the end of the season and series CEO Mark Miles said Walker believed he’d lost the support of many key players in the paddock.
The 2016 schedule has yet to be released and owners have complained that the season is too short. The series doesn’t seem viable with an offseason stretching nearly seven months. By comparison, NASCAR will have a dozen more races after IndyCar shutters its season this weekend.
Those inside the paddock are used to the chaos and taking it in stride.
“There are a lot of opinions out there … and from people who aren’t qualified to give them,” former racer and team owner Bobby Rahal said Tuesday. “This stuff happens, especially when you are pressing the boundaries. These are the fastest race cars on earth, and there is a high level of risk to it. But it is what it is. People are always looking for any little hiccup to make a mountain out of a molehill.”
Bobby Rahal pointed to improved television ratings – “do they need to be much higher? Yes. But they are trending in the right direction,” he said – and the addition of a street race in Boston next year, as well as the return of Road America in Wisconsin to the schedule. IndyCar is also in talks to get Phoenix back on the schedule after a 10-year absence.
But Fontana is gone for 2016, New Orleans had first-year financial trouble that could prevent it from returning and Pocono officials said it was “50-50” that the Pennsylvania track would return next year – even before Wilson’s accident.
To those inside the series, the problems aren’t as dire as they appear.
“I think this year has been much better than last year. I think each year, the series improves,” said Mario Andretti. “Certainly the series is not at the level we’d like for it to be, but the sky isn’t falling. And we’ve shown time and time again that when things like this accident happen, we address the issue and find an improvement.
“At the end of the day, it’s still the best racing out there and we find a way to persevere.”