What if it Happens Again?

Race fans got a grim reminder this past weekend that we follow a very dangerous sport, when sprint car driver Justin Owen was fatally injured at Lawrenceburg Speedway in southeastern Indiana – just across the state line from Cincinnati, this past Saturday night. Owen lost control of his car, when he went high in Turn Three, and tumbled violently striking the catch-fencing. He succumbed to his injuries, and all racing activity was canceled for the rest of the night. Please continue to pray for the family of Justin Owen.

Cancellation of a race has become the norm recently, when fatalities happen. That was not the case not so long ago. I am not passing judgment, nor am I saying one way is more appropriate than the other. Racing fatalities are rarely, if ever, talked about – but it may be time to have an open discussion among real race fans, about what should or would happen if IndyCar officials were faced with such a grim situation.

I should not even bring this up, but I am very fortunate that in all of the races, practices and qualifying sessions I have been to dating back to 1965, there has never been a fatality when I was present at a track. The closest I came was in 1999. I attended the IRL race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, when three spectators were injured when a tire flew over the fence and struck three spectators – killing them instantly. That race was subsequently canceled. Drivers sign up for the risk that comes with being a race car driver; spectators do not, regardless of the small-print warning on the back of the ticket.

My brothers cannot make the same claim that I can. The second lap of the 1964 Indianapolis 500 ended in a fireball, not far at all from where my father and two older brothers were sitting in Stand J. I remember my father talking about how they could feel the heat from the fire on a relatively cold day. The crash took the life of rookie Dave MacDonald and fan-favorite Eddie Sachs. Sachs died instantly, and MacDonald later that day. After a lengthy clean-up and the PA announcement that Sachs had passed away, the race resumed.

Racing fatalities were common in the 60s, when I started following this sport. Each year, six or seven drivers would be lost in a season. My first race was the 1965 Indianapolis 500. Six of the thirty-three drivers that started that race lost their lives in a race car, including winner Jim Clark. No matter how horrifying the fatal crash, after the scene was cleaned up – the racing resumed.

IndyCar fans have grown very complacent with the safety that the current Dallara chassis offers. I really don’t believe in jinxes, so I don’t mind pointing out that IndyCar is enjoying its longest period without a fatality in over thirty years. Counting Jovy Marcelo losing his life in a practice crash at IMS in 1992; IndyCar has suffered nine fatalities in those thirty-one years. They are: Jovy Marcelo (1992), Scott Brayton (1996). Jeff Krosnoff (1996), Gonzalo Rodriguez (1999), Greg Moore (1999). Tony Renna (2003), Paul Dana (2006), Dan Wheldon (2011) and Justin Wilson (2015).

When Wheldon was fatally injured at Las Vegas, the race was cancelled after only fifteen laps. That was the first time I ever recall a race not restarting after a driver fatality. We did not know the extent of Justin Wilson’s injuries, until after the race at Pocono had ended. So far, Wilson is the last driver to lose his or her life as a result of an IndyCar crash.

I am not being morbid, but to think we have seen the last racing fatality in IndyCar would not only be unrealistic – it would be foolish. The aforementioned Sachs/MacDonald incident in 1964 was the last time a driver perished on the track in the Indianapolis 500, almost sixty years ago. Swede Savage eventually succumbed to his injuries received in the 1973 Indianapolis 500, but that was thirty-three days later.

Once again, I am not trying to be morbid; but my question is – In today’s society, if the 1964 Indianapolis 500 repeated itself and there was a driver fatality on Lap Two; would or should the race continue? In all honesty, I don’t have an answer.

Most of my generation (and older) would be OK with it continuing. We are aware of so many races, qualifying sessions and practices continuing after a fatality; we wouldn’t really give it much thought. On the morning of Pole Day in 1973, Art Pollard had a horrifying Turn One crash that took his life in the morning practice, just a couple of hours before qualifications were to begin. After the cleanup, qualifying proceeded as if nothing had happened. That was just the way things were back then. I’m not saying that is the way it should be, it’s just the way it was.

Many fans that are too young to remember the deadly days of the 60s and 70s, and only know the days of losing a driver every five years or so, would be appalled at such callousness. As recently as 2006, driver Paul Dana was fatally injured in the morning warmup at Homestead. A few of hours later, the green flag waved and the race proceeded. We thought nothing of it at the time, but I’m not so sure how that would go over in today’s world.

Just for argument sake, let’s hypothetically say that in the next five years or so, a scenario like the 1964 race repeats itself – where a driver is fatally injured in the very early portion of the race. What happens?

Not to be insensitive, but there is so much at stake – the race could not be cancelled. Would the winner that year simply remain vacant? What about the fans? Lots of fans, spend a lot of money traveling great distances to see the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Do IndyCar officials say “Thanks for coming, but due to the tragic circumstances we will not resume this year’s race after Lap Ten”? Do they wait a day? Does it make everything more palatable if they delay the travel plans at least one day for over 200,000 people out of respect? What about NBC? They pay a lot of money to broadcast the race in that time slot. Yes, there are potential weather delays; but will they go along with an entire schedule shift out of respect for a lost driver or drivers?

Again, I’m not saying what is right or wrong here. I’m sure that IndyCar and IMS officials have long had contingency plans in place for such an event. This just isn’t the type of thing they publicize, first of all because it depends on how fluid each given situation is. But never lose sight of the fact that the amount of money involved will probably ultimately dictate how much sensitivity is shown.

There is no good answer here, and I pray that no current or future IndyCar officials are ever faced with such an unpleasant decision. But it is something I’ve often wondered, and I have an idea that many other fans have wondered the same thing in silence. With the unfortunate circumstances this weekend in Lawrenceburg, Indiana – I thought the timing was right to bring it up and get such a somber topic out of the way before we get into the happier days of the Month of May.

George Phillips

19 Responses to “What if it Happens Again?”

  1. George
    We all hope and pray that never happens again. One small correction since you don’t live in Indiana but Lawrenceburg IN is not across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. The Ohio River does not define the border between Ohio and Indiana at any point.

  2. George, I agree with your analysis here, but I did want to mention one thing. It would be correct to say that in the 60s, six or seven drivers in each year’s Indy 500 starting field would be killed in racing accidents (which was a significant decrease from the 50s, when the number was often in double digits), but I don’t think that six or seven IndyCar drivers died in racing accidents *each year* at that time. My records only include drivers who drove in the Indy 500, but they indicate that an average of two Indy 500 veterans died in racing accidents each year during the 60s, with a low of zero (in 1965 and 1969) and a high of five (in 1966: Hansgen, Rodee, Larson, Davies and Branson–of course, these were deaths in various forms of racing).

  3. I think in the old days part of the attraction of auto racing was the same as watching a tightrope walker or a guy in a barrel going over Niagra Falls or a stunt pilot in a biplane. People realized that death was right there–and the amazement was how they accomplished their tasks without dying. Dying was the risk these daredevils took everyday, so it wasn’t unexpected or necessarily surprising. That attitude sort of filtered down through the decades. But I don’t think it exists anymore, racing is just a normal sport now, and like any other sporting event, a death would cause cancellation of the event immediately.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    On a decision such as this, I would think driver input is critical, if not flat out letting the drivers make the decision themselves. There would be criticism regardless of the decision, especially from the media if a race continued under such circumstances… but, a decision to continue becomes a lot harder to criticize if the drivers themselves elect to continue racing and make a public statement about that decision.

  5. redcar is correct. cancellation is the right and good and moral outcome for any and all sports.

  6. If a situation similar to the 1964 Indianapolis 500 occurred during the Penske-owned series in 2023, it would be a significant blow to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) and the racing series. The speed at which information travels in the modern age means that race fans would face criticism and ridicule even before they returned home from the event, potentially tarnishing the reputation of the sport. Refunding tickets in such a scenario would only compound the damage.

  7. Gary Manes Says:

    I think they should continue the race if a fatality would occur. Unfortunately death is part of the sport that drivers have basically signed up for. IMO the drivers would not want to stop the biggest race in the world before it’s completion.

  8. No one expects to die doing what they love to do. If I remember correctly when Dan Weldon died in Las Vegas, it was the drivers that got together and decided not to continue… at least that day.
    To my knowledge, drivers are all aware of the possibilities of “what if the worst thing happens”, and yet they continue to race. There are a few that have opted out of racing at certain events such as the Indy 500, but those seem to be few and far in between. Most eagerly attempt to qualify even if it means the potential is much higher for something bad to happen. Most drivers I am aware of don’t do this for the $$$ (of course that helps), but they do it because they are racers… going fast is in their blood and in their souls. While not an Indycar driver specifically, Jessi Combs died in 2019 when a part failed while traveling at 522 MPH…. She didn’t have to try to break the land speed record, but she HAD to try to break the record. So it’s not just Indycar that is dangerous, it’s racing; and that’s what the drivers and “fans” are all here for.
    I feel that Indycar is doing a lot on the preventative side of things to keep this from happening again, but every one of us knows it most likely will at some point … so if and when this does happen (God forbid), I would place it in the driver’s hands because they are the ones that have to get back out there.

  9. It was said there was a drivers vote at Las Vegas as to whether to continue the race. The result was basicly 50/50. Mario was very vocal the race should resume, but he wasn’t an active driver. After considering all the opinions Randy Benard decided to cancel because he felt some were not in the proper frame of mind to continue. At least that’s the rumor I heard.

  10. I thought Olvey mentioned something in his book “Rapid Response,” that protocol is you don’t declare a driver fatality at the track anymore. Maybe I’m way off on that one…just seems like I recall something about not pronouncing a death until the driver reaches the hospital. If that’s accurate, couldn’t they continue the race and make the announcement at its conclusion? I know that’s probably a bit naive. I assume most drivers/teams would already know and so forth.

  11. I guess I’m probably in the minority but the show must go on. If I driver is killed in this years Indy 500, perhaps lap 95, should we stop the race and either cancel it or rerun it at a later date? Is it really feasible?

    Of course this is the Indy 500. But what about other races. Is it ok to continue to run at Indy but in a similar situation stop the race at Barber and cancel or rerun on another day?

    What happened in the Bengals/Buffalo game was a bit unique in that they had to give CPR for up to 20 minutes in front of the players. But even then I think the game could have continued. What if this had happened in the Super bowl or one of the conference championship games? Would they have cancelled the game? Would that have even been feasible?

    Injury is part of these sports. I was at the Cincinnati Reds opening day in, I think 1996, when the umpire collapsed and died of a heart attack. Marge Schott was heavily criticized in that she wanted the game to go on. Now this was an official, not a player who risked injury every day. And it was the first day of the season. But even then perhaps the game could have gone on with enough umpires available. Illness can happen. Even that severe.

    Other situations make it impossible to continue. The earthquake during the 1989 World Series in Oakland which made the facility unsafe. Or some act of violence. Or an event with multiple fatalities to participants and fans. Then there would be no choice.

    Bottom line, there is a risk of injury or worse in sports. We all know that going in. The participants more than anyone. The show should go on.

  12. No way, race would be cancelled quickly. Heck, the NFL opened a can of worms to cancel a game over an injury that may continue into the future (granted that looked like a potential fatality, whereas looking at the situation today, it ended up being relatively minor). No way does a race finish after a death.

  13. Yes the race would go on! The race must go on!! Sheesh let’s wrap ourselves in a bubble…..

  14. The race must go on! We don’t live in a bubble. A death on the highway and we reopen traffic. It’s life….
    And death.

  15. I think we’re all ignoring that aside from the emotional state at Vegas in 2011.. the race situation itself was unsafe, in what some would call a negligent manner. Too many cars on a track too small, too high banked, with too much drag resulted to too much of a pack-race, not unlike the Daytona/Talladega stock car races where cars are constantly tripping over each other. Except openwheel cars tend to get launched into the fence instead of beatin’ and bangin’

    Ultimately, its up to the drivers.

  16. “Scott and myself promised Craig’s family that we would enjoy this weekend and we’ve been able to do that. Now it’s all over, our thoughts turn back to them.”
    Quote from WRC winner Elfyn Evans this last weekend in Croatia about him and his Co driver Scott Martin concerning the death of Craig Breen.

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