Five-time defending NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson called on IndyCar to stop racing on ovals in the wake of Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon's death.
Wheldon, a St. Petersburg resident, was killed in a 15-car accident in Sunday's IndyCar season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a high banked, 1.5-mile oval. The Englishman was 33.
"I wouldn't run them on ovals. There's just no need to," Johnson said Monday during a test session at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "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."
Johnson was in his own frightening accident Saturday night at Charlotte, where his car hit headfirst into the wall. The back wheels briefly lifted off the track, but Johnson walked away and suffered only next-day soreness.
He's always wanted to race in the Indianapolis 500, but when his daughter was born last year, Johnson said he promised his wife he would not drive an IndyCar. The combination of the speeds and the car design — an IndyCar has an open cockpit and wheels that can't withstand the bumping that occurs on ovals — has made him gun shy about racing cars that don't have a roof.
"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," Johnson said. "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."
IndyCar drivers had expressed concern for the speeds they reached in practice at Las Vegas. With the speed — close to 225 mph during practice — and a crowded 34-car field, a big worry was aggressive driving early in the 200-lap race.
The green flag had barely stopped waving when disaster struck.
Wheldon, driving from the back of the field for a chance at $5 million, was moving through the pack when he drove into a tangle of cars careening off each other in every direction. Unable to avoid the wreck unfolding before him, Wheldon clipped another car and went hurtling through the air, his car bursting into flames as it flew into a fence.
After 11 laps, the race was over. Two hours later, track officials announced that Wheldon was dead.
On Monday, Clark County Coroner Michael Murphy said an autopsy found Wheldon died of blunt head trauma.
"It's unfortunate that early on in the race they've got to be racing so close," Team Penske owner Roger Penske said. "You always worry about those at these mile-and-a-halves at the speed and with this many cars."
Asked about speed after the crash, Wheldon's former boss Chip Ganassi said, "There will be plenty of time in the offseason to talk about that."
And Dario Franchitti said: "I agree. We'll discuss that and sort it out."
But driver Oriol Servia didn't mince words: "We all had a bad feeling about this place in particular just because of the high banking and how easy it was to go flat. And if you give us the opportunity, we are drivers and we try to go to the front. We race each other hard because that's what we do. We knew it could happen, but it's just really sad."