Unpredictable track led to fatal crash
INDIANAPOLIS -- INDYCAR issued a 216-page report Thursday documenting its two-month-long investigation into the 15-car accident at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Oct. 16 that killed popular star driver Dan Wheldon.
The CliffsNotes version: It was an unpredictable racing accident with fatal consequences.
More specifically, as the multicar wreck unfolded in front of him, Wheldon managed to slow his car from 224 to 165 mph before contacting another car and flying through the air for approximately 325 feet.
Wheldon's car covered the length of a football field in less than 0.8 seconds, rotating 90 degrees to the right so that the top of the cockpit was fully exposed to the wall and fence. The right rear corner bounced off the track, launching the car above the wall until it struck a 4.5-inch diameter steel pole with enough force to damage the monocoque tub of the car from the pedal bulkhead to the cockpit. That sheared the protective roll hoop from behind the driver's head. By then, the bottom of Wheldon's helmet had impacted the pole near his chin, causing blunt force trauma and an unsurvivable injury. Wheldon's injury was limited to his head.
INDYCAR concluded that the size of the field (34 cars, about 25 percent larger than most races) and the low experience level of some of the drivers were not causal to the accident.
The series also discounted the notion that Wheldon took additional risks because he was racing for a chance at a $5 million prize in the GoDaddy INDYCAR Challenge.
Instead, the report concluded that the cars were too easy to drive on the recently repaved, variable-banked LVMS oval, allowing the drivers to pretty much drive anywhere they wanted on the track, rather than sticking to a racing "groove" limited by the performance of the car.
"The examination of the video of the October 16th accident demonstrates normal pack racing that is common on high-banked ovals," said Brian Barnhart, INDYCAR's president of racing operations.
"However, what was also witnessed was nearly unlimited movement on the track surface under race conditions. This capability of relatively free movement on the track without restraints of natural racing grooves must be attributed to the overall track geometry beyond banking. That had not previously been experienced."
Indeed, the first 10 laps of the Vegas race looked like a free-for-all, with numerous scary, breathtaking moments. The inevitable finally happened entering Turn 1 on the 11th lap when the cars of Wade Cunningham and James Hinchcliffe touched, sending Cunningham's car into a spin.
Over the next four seconds, Wheldon's was only one of several individual, yet interconnected, accidents that took place. With four cars getting airborne -- those of JR Hildebrand, Pippa Mann and Will Power, in addition to Wheldon's -- it's a miracle that Mann's burned pinky finger was the most significant other injury in the calamity.
The question that must be addressed is why INDYCAR did not discover the "relatively unlimited movement" of race conditions until the drivers were actually racing.
In practice for the race, with the track rubbered in and warmer conditions, practice speeds in the pack topped 224 mph and Tony Kanaan qualified on pole at 222.078 mph.
It was in some ways similar to when the CART-sanctioned Indy car series scheduled a race at Texas Motor Speedway in 2001, and prerace testing produced speeds 15-20 mph slower than when the cars ran in packs in practice.
On that occasion, CART medical officials determined that the combination of lateral and previously never experienced vertical G- forces were causing the drivers to black out on the track. The race was canceled about four hours prior to the scheduled start.
At Las Vegas this year, significantly, the full pack of 34 cars never all ran at once on the track prior to the race, with all practice sessions split into two groups of 17 cars. Aside from not experiencing the amount of traffic the race brought, drivers weren't able to learn the tendencies of other drivers -- in other words, who they could be confident of going wheel-to-wheel with, and who to give a little extra room on the track.
"It is virtually impossible for us to replicate race conditions, as much as we do in the feasibility and compatibility testing, as much as we do in practice," Barnhart said. "But you never get an opportunity to run with everyone out there trying to achieve in practice what they do when the green flag drops in the race. In those conditions, the ability of the drivers to race from the bottom of the racetrack all the way up to the wall and run limitless is not a condition we've experienced before.
While the accident could have occurred at any track at any time, the dynamic of the current car and the overall track geometry at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway under race conditions appeared to have been causal to this accident.” -- INDYCAR's Brian Barnhart
"This movement not only allowed for increased car-to-car contact, but made it more difficult for drivers to predict the movement of other drivers around them," Barnhart added. "As a result, the opportunity for this accident was increased. While the accident could have occurred at any track at any time, the dynamic of the current car and the overall track geometry at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway under race conditions appeared to have been causal to this accident."
In terms of what actually killed Wheldon, the design of the fence at Las Vegas Motor Speedway -- where the poles are on the track side of the mesh fence, rather than on the grandstand side -- must be considered a factor and come under scrutiny.
A similar specification of fence is used at Texas, where two of the most devastating (but thankfully not fatal) accidents left Davey Hamilton (2001) and Kenny Brack (2003) with life-threatening injuries that they survived.
TMS president Eddie Gossage vigorously defended the design of the fence at Texas and Las Vegas (both of which are owned and operated by Speedway Motorsports Inc.) in a recent interview published in RACER magazine.
Gossage said: "According to our engineers who've studied this for years, the way we have it placed at Texas Motor Speedway -- from the racetrack to the grandstand it goes SAFER barrier, wall, cables, upright posts, mesh fencing -- is the best way and it won't be changed. It is the safest for the drivers and safest for the fans."
The INDYCAR report attempted to deflect attention and blame away from the fence design.
"The fencing (including post, cables and fabric) at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway was found to have performed to all expectation in retaining a race car from leaving the track," stated the report. "The only change that would be preferred is for the fence fabric to be on the track side of the post rather [sic] its current configuration.
"While there is no evidence that placement of the fabric would have changed the consequences of this accident, there are accident scenarios that can be envisioned in which the fabric placement might have some significance. For that reason, the preferred fabric placement at any track hosting an INDYCAR event is on the trackside of the fence post."
This suggests why INDYCAR has been hesitant to announce its 2012 date with Texas Motor Speedway. INDYCAR made clear Thursday that significant testing of the new car it is introducing in 2012 must take place at every oval track to determine whether the venues are suitable for high-speed open-wheel competition.
INDYCAR already announced that the series will not return to LVMS in 2012.
Ironically, Wheldon was the chief test driver for the 2012 Indy car chassis produced by Dallara; the car has been renamed the "DW12" in his honor.
Numerous safety features developed over the last 10 years have been factored into the design of the new car, including controversial rear-wheel shrouds that are intended to reduce the possibility of cars locking wheels.
In every fatal racing accident, lessons are learned that are applied in the future to make cars and tracks safer. In Indy car racing, for example, the deaths of Scott Brayton and Jeff Krosnoff in 1996 resulted in wider cockpits with additional padding and head protection; Greg Moore's fatal accident in 1999 convinced many oval tracks to pave infield sections to reduce the chance of uneven grass or dirt surfaces launching cars into the air.
"We have to stop the cars from flying and taking off," said Will Phillips, project director for the 2012 DW12. "The new car has several features to try and stop that. The pods behind the rear wheels are there to prevent contact between front wheels and rear wheels.
"When cars are doing in excess of 220 mph, it doesn't take long to cover 320 feet. And once it leaves the ground, it's no longer a car -- it's no longer got its wheels in contact with the ground. It's a serious challenge to try and make it a car and an airplane. You just can't do it. Anything we can do to prevent a vehicle from leaving the ground would be of benefit."
With safety as its primary goal, INDYCAR therefore heads into an uncertain future. Sadly, it does so without one of its most charismatic stars.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.