Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s “limitless” racing surface was singled out Thursday as a significant factor in a “perfect storm” of conditions that led to the death of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon.
Wheldon was killed Oct. 16 during the series’ season finale when his car sailed 325 feet through the air into a catchfence, and his head hit a post in the fence. The blow created a “non-survivable injury.”
In the wake of the 15-car wreck, many criticized CEO Randy Bernard and IndyCar for creating a deadly mix of circumstances — offering a jobless Wheldon the chance to earn a $5 million bonus if he could drive from the back of a 34-car field to Victory Lane on a high-banked oval, where a field of mixed experience levels had enough room to race three-wide at over 220 mph.
But IndyCar president Brian Barnhart dismissed those factors and focused instead on Vegas’ multi-grooved wide racing surface that heightened the dangers of pack racing on a high-banked oval.
The IndyCar, with open wheels and an open cockpit, is not suited for the pack racing that develops on ovals. Unlike NASCAR, where cars bump and bang on every lap, any contact in an IndyCar results in either a crash or a slew of broken parts.
“Racing grooves not only restrict drivers’ naturally aggressive racing behavior, but make the location of another competitor’s car on the racetrack more predictable,” the report said.
But when the race began at Vegas, the packed 34-car field was all over the track — movement series officials did not expect despite drivers’ warnings.
“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,” Barnhart said. “I don’t think we were expecting it to be any different from what we’d experienced in the last decade at places like Chicagoland, Kentucky, Fontana and Texas. …
“We were never expecting to be able to run from the top to the bottom (at Las Vegas).”
Most ovals have one or two racing grooves.
Drivers, however, predicted as early as preseason testing that Las Vegas would be hairy and repeated those warnings during the buildup to the race.
“We knew that was the case before we even started the race, because it’s been the case at (ovals) where you can run multi-grooves,” driver Will Power, who broke his back in the accident, told The Associated Press.
“The biggest problem we face is it’s almost like driving on the highway at full speed and you can’t get away from anyone,” he said. “It’s the same thing NASCAR has with Daytona and Talladega, and when they have the big one, the consequences aren’t nearly as bad as in IndyCar.
“We can’t race in a pack. You just can’t in open-wheelers. There’s no room for error.”
Bernard said the report was shared with Wheldon’s widow, Susie, on Wednesday evening, and she spoke with both Barnhart and Bernard afterward.
“She talked to Brian Barnhart primarily about the investigation because I felt it was important for Brian to educate her,” Bernard said. “My conversation with her was about some other questions and family matters that she wanted to discuss.”
Just a day shy of the two-month anniversary of Wheldon’s death, IndyCar is struggling to move forward.
The 2012 schedule has yet to be released, although Bernard hoped to have it out by Friday. At issue was whether the IndyCar is suited for any high-banked ovals. Bernard already has bought his way out of Year 2 of the Las Vegas contract. The third and final year of the lease agreement is up for review.
Las Vegas Motor Speedway president Chris Powell said track officials will work with IndyCar in hopes “the series might return to LVMS in the future.”
“I think Las Vegas is a great city, a resort destination, and our fans and sponsors — everyone loves the city,” Bernard said. “But I don’t want to go back there if the conditions aren’t right, if it isn’t safe, for our race cars.”
So attention now turns to Texas Motor Speedway, a popular venue that has hosted IndyCar since 1997. After Wheldon’s death, there were calls for Texas to be dropped from the schedule.
The investigation, though, determined every track should be judged individually and a ban on all banked ovals wasn’t practical. Bernard said he hoped to have an agreement with Texas completed when he announces the schedule.
But Power wants to see changes first.
“If we go back there racing in a pack, I will be very disappointed,” Power said. “What IndyCar has to do is find a formula that spreads it out, makes it difficult to drive and not reliant on an engineering program.”
That’s the direction Barnhart wants to go with IndyCar, too, both with the 2012 car that Wheldon helped develop and drivers’ attitudes.
“You get to a point where you don’t want to get to the limitless racing capabilities that we had at Vegas,” Barnhart said. “What we’re going to try to do is identify an aerodynamic package that makes it more challenging for the drivers.
“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.”
Wheldon didn’t appear to have any qualms about driving at Vegas, which was spurred by a $5 million incentive.
Wheldon was making just his third start of the season and chasing the incentive offered by Bernard to any non-IndyCar regular. Wheldon would have split the money with a fan selected in a random drawing.
Allowing Wheldon to take the challenge was a stretch — he won 14 races on ovals, including the Indy 500 earlier in the season — but because he sat out the season, he technically qualified for the bonus.
But Wheldon felt he was up for the challenge.
He was the in-race reporter for ABC during the event and spoke with the announcers during the warm-up laps. In a brief interview, Wheldon defended his participation and the entire IndyCar Series.
“I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think that I could win,” he said from his car. “Certainly I am not underestimating the talent of the other drivers in the field. I think IndyCar has got a phenomenal field right now.”
Wheldon was killed minutes later when the crash began ahead of him at the start of the 12th lap. He had picked his way through the field and gained at least 10 spots when he came upon the accident and had nowhere to go to avoid the spinning cars and flying debris.
The report found that although Wheldon stayed low on the track in an attempt to avoid the cluster of cars spinning toward the top — he had slowed from 224 mph to 165 — his path was blocked by other cars. His first contact with another car sent him airborne and into the catchfence.
Las Vegas is owned by Speedway Motor Sports Inc., and the organization has spent considerable money on research into fencing. SMI owner Bruton Smith is adamant his fences are the strongest and safest in the business, and he makes no apologies for constructing them with the posts inside the wiring.
Barnhart said there is no indication Wheldon would have survived had the post been on the outside of the mesh wiring.
“It does not look like the position of the mesh fabric would have changed the consequences of this accident at all,” Barnhart said. “Sometimes the forces are too great. The small fabric is not there to retain a car. That’s the object of the post and the cables. The location of the fabric would not have changed the outcome at all, but as we’ve said, our preference is for it to be on the inside.”