Dan Wheldon celebrated his 2nd Indy 500 win last May - Anne Proffit photoEnlarge Photo
It's been two months - nearly to the day - since 2011 Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon perished in a 15-car crash during the IZOD IndyCar Series finale on the 1.5-mile progressively banked Las Vegas Motor Speedway oval.
The race had 34 cars - one more than is permitted on the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway flat oval - and drivers of varying abilities, driving cars so evenly matched that it was very, very easy to go "flat" in the oval's turns and on its straightaways.
The incident occurred early in the intended 300-mile contest, when the cars were packed together and using the entire race track; all were full of 98-percent fuel-grade ethanol. There were no marbles, the residue of tires shedding rubber as they lose their efficiency.
The series, dealing with its first fatality since 2006 when Paul Dana died in a morning warmup crash on the similar 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway oval, conducted a comprehensive review of the incident that involved 15 cars and occurred in the second turn of the race track.
"There are multiple factors that are not uncommon to racing that came together in a way that claimed Dan's life," said Brian Barnhart, president of operations for INDYCAR. "It is a tragedy and our thoughts and support will always be with Dan's family."
That said, he addressed data coming from the accident data recorders on every car involved in the crash, on-board data acquisition systems from the teams, timing and scoring loops, video, still photographs, physical evidence and eyewitness reports from participants.
INDYCAR hired experts with Indianapolis-based Wolf Technical Services, who provided independent assurance that the investigation protocol, evidence examined and reviewed, and that the conclusions reached are consistent and appropriate to standard scientific and engineering investigation methods.
The accident review, the report stated, revealed that Wheldon's path on the lower portion of track was blocked by the multi-car crash he approached. His No. 77 car became airborne and ultimately impacted a vertical post of the track fencing. The pole intruded the cockpit and the impact with Wheldon's helmeted head produced "non-survivable blunt force trauma," the report said.
Barnhart noted Wheldon suffered two major forces to his head, the second of which was responsible for his death. He had reduced throttle input from 100 percent to 55 percent as he came upon the crash and, one second before impact reduced throttle to 10 percent, going from 224-mph to 165-mph when he made contact with rookie Charlie Kimball, and launched airborne for about 325 feet.
The moment the sequence began, Wheldon's impact of 24Gs longitudinally and -30Gs vertically sent him airborne with the car rolling right and into the SAFER barrier. If he hadn't continued, he'd likely still be alive.
But - "The chassis impacted a post along the right side of the tub and created a deep defect in the tub that extended from the pedal bulkhead, along the upper border of the tub, that went through the cockpit," Barnhart explained. As most expected, the pole impacted Wheldon's cockpit and made contact with his helmet and head.
During the crash sequence, Barnhart continued, the data collected showed 12-13 impacts. "One of those impacts measured a measurable head injury criteria." Barnhart did not fix blame on placement of the posts inside the fence stating, "The fence appeared to perform as designed. There's no indication that the outcome would have been different" had the fence posts been outside the fence toward the spectator area.
In essence, the report stated that the incident was a product of many things: "pack racing" that's common on high-banked ovals, the number (and quality) of cars and drivers, the current race car in use (for the final time) and the overall track geometry. It was, in essence a perfect storm.
All of these exigencies were exacerbated by unlimited movement capabilities on this particular track - the freedom of movement outside normal racing grooves "not only increased the probability for car-to-car contact but made it more difficult for drivers to predict the movement of other drivers," thereby increasing the opportunity for such an incident, the report stated.
INDYCAR said this incident could have happened anywhere and anytime, but dynamics of the car and the overall LVMS track geometry added to the criterium of contributing factors. The Dallara Indy car in use since 2003 has very high downforce - and with a single engine provider in Honda, the series elected to keep horsepower low. This is one contributing factor.
When practice first opened on Thursday - and there was less than 90 minutes for those 34 cars on-track prior to the race - Danica Patrick was quickest at nearly 225mph. She was a little bit surprised by her quickness on the track, but commented she'd had good luck here in her NASCAR Nationwide outing earlier in the year.
Soon-to-be three-time consecutive champion Dario Franchitti (he's got a total of four Indy car championships) said there was minimal tire wear, which meant there were few marbles on the surface because there was no definitive line - the drivers could use the whole track.
INDYCAR stated the 34-car field was acceptable, yet didn't address the disparity in talent between, say, a Franchitti and a Jay Howard or a Pippa Mann, both graduates of the Firestone Indy Lights Series with minimal experience in the bigger, heavier and more powerful Indy cars. Mann was one of two other drivers to sustain injuries in the debacle; championship runner-up Will Power was the other.
"This incident and its consequences could have occurred with any size starting field at any track," the report stated.
It is important to remember that the Indy cars have been racing on banked 1.5-mile ovals since it began competition in 1996 as the Indy Racing League, an all-oval series. The initial problem in the Las Vegas race was the lack of a definitive groove on this track and the ability to use the entire surface for racing, which meant three, four-abreast scenarios.
While the IZOD IndyCar Series might be satisfied with these findings, it still needs to look further into the capability of its drivers, the race-ability of its cars and tracks. The series has yet to detail its complete 2012 schedule, but the very real possibility of having fewer than three ovals exists. And that's a damn shame.
For readers who wish to view the entire accident report, it's available through our friends at Trackside Online: http://www.tracksideonline.com/interactive/Las_Vegas_Accident_Investigation_12_15_11.pdf. The 49-page briefing includes data, photos and summaries and is an interesting read.
Will release of this report help or hinder INDYCAR's progress as it attempts to renew itself with different cars (that are in the development stages), new engines and new rules? That remains to be seen, but the fact that this very detailed report is available in less than two months is certainly a step toward healing.
© 2011 Anne Proffit