INDIANAPOLIS -- As IndyCar officials spearhead an investigation into the 15-car crash that claimed the life of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon on Oct. 16, industry insiders say they're eager to learn what role the fence and its steel supports may have played in the fatality, particularly given the design of those elements at the Las Vegas track.
In Nevada, and at sister Speedway Motorsports Inc. (SMI) tracks in Texas, Kentucky and New Hampshire, the steel supports are on the racetrack side, with the fencing located behind them on the grandstand side. At Indianapolis Motor Speedway and all non-SMI tracks on the 2011 schedule, the fencing is on the racetrack side, with the steel supports behind them on the grandstand side.
"That is something that we as a group in IndyCar really want an answer to because we feel that is wrong," said Davey Hamilton, one of the 34 drivers who competed in the ill-fated IndyCar season finale at Las Vegas. "When it's the poles, then the cable and the fencing, looking from the racetrack to the grandstand, that seems completely opposite and backward. It could have been a contributing factor to Dan Wheldon's incident. Does that need to be addressed? For sure it does.
"I'm not throwing down on [SMI tracks] at all. I really would like to hear their reasoning, and if it's a safety issue, then let's prove that is the safest way to have a fence, and if it is, we learn from that," he added. "But I would love to go talk to them and have them show why the fences are that way.
"We can suspend bridges with thousands of cars all at one time suspended by cable. We have boxing rings with the posts three-feet behind the ring. Why can't the technology have our poles three- or four-feet behind the fencing and we have a suspension system so that when we hit there is still fencing that is strong enough to hold and keep the fans safe but we do not hit the poles?"
Officials at SMI declined to comment when reached by SI.com. However, Humpy Wheeler, the former president of SMI and former president and general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway, offered his explanation on the fence construction.
"One reason is you are trying to protect the fence from being torn completely off and wrapping around the car," he said. "The second thing is that fence can get dangerous in itself. You don't want it tearing to shreds and getting into the car and the driver, particularly in an open-wheel deal. And it seems to be a lot easier to repair. I think every one of the SMI tracks has it that way.
"I personally think it's better. Some other people don't. It makes repair of the fence easier. It's safer because the car won't get wrapped around that wheel fence. But those poles, whether they are inside or outside, and your head hits it, it's going to be pretty catastrophic."
Dr. Terry Trammell, one of the leading sports orthopedic surgeons in the world and a noted authority on such safety items as the Head and Neck Support (HANS) Device, calls the positioning of the support poles at Las Vegas and other SMI tracks a "hot potato" issue.
Trammell and fellow orthopedic surgeon Dr. Kevin Scheid operated on Hamilton after his car went into the fence at Texas Motor Speedway in June 2001. Hamilton suffered massive injuries to his legs and feet, requiring over 21 operations before he eventually was able to return to the cockpit of an IndyCar on a limited basis. Trammell is also familiar with the 2003 IndyCar Series finale race at Texas in which Kenny Brack, the 1999 Indianapolis 500 winner, was involved in a horrific crash. In that one, the support poles, along with a track opening and gate used as a track crossover, tore Brack's IndyCar apart. He suffered serious injuries, and although he would return to compete in the 2005 Indianapolis 500, the crash pretty much ended his IndyCar career.
"What we have seen with Davey Hamilton, Kenny Brack and another patient that was injured in a crash at Texas is that the damages are more severe to the driver, to the car in those circumstances when the poles are on the outside [racetrack side] of the fence," Trammell said. "Mike Conway's crash at Indianapolis is remarkably similar to what happened to Wheldon with how the car launched, the distance it flew, the fact it got up in the fence. Actually, Conway should have been worse because he got up there without any help. He flew there on his own. There was another secondary impact that probably put Wheldon into the catch fence.
"My impression is the pole is an unprotected object. I would say the evidence we have been able to collect points to that."
Trammell emphasized that while facts are still being collected, it was fairly clear that in order for the pole to rip the roll bar and engine cover off the back of Wheldon's IndyCar, that his head also made contact with the pole.
"There are lots of pieces to the evidence," Trammell said. "I have not seen a picture that clearly shows his head impacting the pole. It's all bits and pieces of evidence. It's CSI. Some of the pieces of evidence I would like to have I don't have yet and may not. But that is what it points to: that his head hit the pole."
In referring back to the Hamilton crash, Trammell explained, "It would appear the construction of the fence is why Davey's leg injuries were so severe. Something we have observed but not proved is it makes sense if you simply take web wire and put it behind the pole and then you lay the wire behind the poles and then a link on the wire, what's it going to do? It pulls away from the pole. No matter how you fasten it to the pole, the wire is going to sag between the poles. Now, if that object is moving along the wire toward the poles it's going to hit the pole. If you do the same experiment and put the wire on the top of the poles and then put on a weight, it will ride the wire along the pole. You could drag it from pole to pole and the fence wire is alongside the pole. When that weight gets to the pole that will ride over the pole. That is what happened with Mike Conway in the 2010 Indianapolis 500. If you go through the wire you are in deep trouble. But if the car is on top of the wire it rides right over the pole.
"If the screen wire is behind the pole and you push it in and you get to the pole instead of riding over the pole -- it runs right into it."
The University of Nebraska's Dr. Dean Sicking, who helped lead a team that created the softer wall project known as the Steel and Foam Energy Resistant (SAFER) Barrier, says that, "Where the posts are placed -- front or back -- doesn't matter because the posts are all dangerous. The netting will basically pull you into the post, whether the post is in front of the netting or [the netting is] in front of the post. The thing that is dangerous to most of the drivers is the post. If you hit that you are in trouble."
Like Hamilton, Alex Lloyd was also among the 15 drivers involved in the Vegas crash, and he contends that while the positioning of the support poles may be an issue, the fact the cars went airborne was the No. 1 reason for the calamity.
"We have to prevent the cars taking off in the air and I don't know exactly how we do that," he said after Wheldon's memorial service in Indianapolis on Sunday. "When they hit the catch fencing, that is when bad things happen. If we can prevent that from happening, that will go a long way. Preventing cars from taking off is the No. 1 goal."
Hamilton suggests increasing the height of the SAFER Barrier, making it twice as high as its current height, which is the same as the top of the concrete wall.
"Maybe we go one more row higher with the SAFER Barrier," he said. "I think that would help. Dan's case, for example, if it [the barrier] was another row higher he may not have got in the fence at all. That may be something to look at in the investigation."
That there was just one fatality in Vegas is seen by some in the industry as evidence that current safety standards are having an impact.
"Twenty years ago we would have had four or five guys in that accident be gone," said 22-year-old driver Graham Rahal. "Things have come a long way and they will continue to come a long way. The meetings we have had are vital and we can get some things done. Right now we can make the changes we need to make it [IndyCar] better, more exciting for the drivers, safer for the drivers and more exciting for the fans, and we have the time to do that. We need to make sure we are ahead of the curve.
"We have six months before we hit the track, so we have plenty of time, with all the engineering in the world, to make the changes we ask for and there should be no excuses."