With info in hand, IndyCar must learn from errors, improve safety
MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- On Thursday, IndyCar presented its findings on the Oct. 16 crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that took Dan Wheldon's life. Wheldon, IndyCar officials said, suffered "non-survivable" injuries when his head hit a pole in the fencing. The two-time Indy 500 champion was 33.
Now that IndyCar has announced the results of its investigation, the sport must make the necessary changes to improve safety and ensure this never happens again.
According to many people in IndyCar, that change has to begin at the racetrack.
IndyCar president Brian Barnhart said the degree of banking combined with the level of grip and other factors created "limitless racing capabilities" at Las Vegas, where all of the track surface was utilized by the 34 cars in the largest IndyCar field since 35 cars made the starting lineup for the 1997 Indianapolis 500.
"What we had in Vegas was a situation where the track and the conditions and the combination of the overall geometry and the restrictions we had to put in place for the cars to control the speed created limitless racing lines," Barnhart said. "It wasn't a challenge to these highly talented drivers. I think what we have to create, through this extensive testing, is a limit. They have to know that there's a line that they can't cross. I think that will restrict and make the racing better as we look down the road and returning to Las Vegas."
Bobby Rahal, a current IZOD IndyCar Series team owner and a former star driver whose career included three IndyCar titles in CART and a victory in the 1986 Indianapolis 500, agrees that conditions were unsuitable, but he believes it's a problem common to all high-banked ovals.
"I'm not a fan of the 1.5-mile, high-banked ovals," Rahal said. "I never have been. I don't have a problem with the length. I have trouble with the degree of banking. I love Indy. I love tracks like Phoenix and Milwaukee and New Hampshire [low-banked ovals]. Unless something dramatically changes on the cars, then it seems to me ... [it's] tough to find a configuration that allows IndyCars to run on those tracks with a degree of forgiveness and safety.
"The idea of going wheel-to-wheel, lap-after-lap, to me, my heart is in my mouth all the time. Unfortunately at Las Vegas it wasn't a matter of if it was going to happen, but when."
IndyCar, however, does not believe that the banking alone is to blame for the accident. Going forward, it will judge each high-banked oval individually.
The investigation concluded several factors contributed to the accident, but Barnhart said that the fence construction was not one of said factors.
"It does not look like the positioning of the mesh fabric would have changed the consequences of this accident at all," Barnhart said. Las Vegas, and other tracks owned by Speedway Motorsports Inc., positions its mesh fencing on the grandstand side, unlike many other tracks. "While we can envision some scenarios where the fabric being on the inside would be beneficial, in this case, it simply doesn't appear that it would have made any difference.
"So because of that, our preference is for the fabric to be on the inside, but it wouldn't have made any difference on the outcome of this accident."
Rahal remains quite skeptical regarding the position of the mesh fence.
"Sometimes if something has the appearance of being right or wrong then it is," Rahal said. "Having the pole on the inside of the fence rather than the outside seems to be wrong if you ask me. I can't believe that didn't have some bearing.
"Now I will say this, when you are up in the fence like that and the fence gives, then you could still hit the pole. But would the odds be as great? I don't know. If you went on appearance sake I would say it has to be more dangerous than having the fence on the trackside of the pole."
One change that should immediately make the sport safer is a new car -- the first in the series since 2003.
Mike Hull, managing director of Target/Chip Ganassi Racing, hopes the new car will be more adjustable in terms of weight distribution and downforce. Such flexibility could help IndyCar avoid repeating what happened at Las Vegas, where all 34 cars were racing "flat-out."
"Presently the car's window [of change] is too small for that," Hull said. "We are in the window for testing but we can't tune in that window like we should. We have to understand how we can do a better job with our cars and the racetracks can do a better job helping us all.
"I don't like the summation that we witnessed a 'perfect storm' because that doesn't reflect the fact we need to do a better job and the potential for that happening again isn't there. We need to look at individual racetracks to understand they are not all the same. That's a good start."
Ryan Briscoe, one of three drivers for the powerful Team Penske operation, knows the dangers of IndyCar all too well. When Briscoe was competing for Target/Chip Ganassi Racing in 2005 he survived a fiery, airborne crash at Chicagoland Speedway.
"There were so many factors to what happened to Dan," Briscoe said. "It was the formula we were running at Vegas, the pack of cars nose-to-tail, side-by-side at 220 miles per hour and that cars got airborne and he hit a pole. There are lots of things that we can learn from and it provides a bit of closure but doesn't really change a whole lot for us. I'm ready and excited to get on with 2012.
"We've had the tragedy in the sport. Unfortunately, we can't go back in time and change that but we can learn from that. It's good timing with the new car coming on board. We need to learn from it and take what we can. But I'm ready to go racing."
Briscoe wants to get away from racing at 220 miles per hour with no challenge to the driver at all. It was easy to surpass that speed at Las Vegas, so to make a difference drivers were racing too close to each other and too aggressively. Briscoe wants the cars to be more challenging to drive, which will create separation between the cars.
"It might have been safer if they let us run at 230 miles per hour because it might have been challenging and allowed us to separate a little bit," Briscoe said. "The new car will be more challenging."
With a new car and some other important changes it's time for IndyCar to finally move forward and regain some of the momentum it had appeared to have prior to the Wheldon tragedy.
"What was announced today was very important and it's time we move forward," Hull said.
Will Power, one of four drivers who went airborne during the crash, agrees.
"It really comes down to luck. I was lucky enough to land the right way or you are unlucky enough to land the wrong way. In my opinion, you have to take the luck factor out of it so it has to really be unfortunate for it to go bad," Power said. "We have to work on ways to make it better. It's time for IndyCar to move forward and be very conscious of what happened and what we need to do to make sure it doesn't happen again."