December 15, 2011
'Perfect storm' blamed in Wheldon death
By DEAN McNULTY, QMI Agency
TORONTO - An investigation into the death of IZOD IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon at Las Vegas Motor Speedway has spread the blame around in a report released Thursday in Indianapolis.
In what the report called “a perfect storm” the independent probe found multiple factors led to the deadly, Oct. 16 crash just 11 laps into the season finale for the North American open wheel series.
“The accident was significant due to the number of race cars damaged, but more importantly due to the non-survivable injuries to Dan Wheldon,” the report concluded. “While several factors coincided to produce a ‘perfect storm’, none of them can be singled out as the sole cause of the accident.
“For this reason, it is impossible to determine with certainty that the result would have been any different if one or more of the factors did not exist.”
But one factor stood out in the report and that was that track conditions at LVMS were such that the IR3 Dallara race cars used by IndyCar were able to reach and maintain speeds of more than 224 m.p.h. at just about any place on the 1.5 mile high-banked oval.
IndyCar president of operations Brian Barnhart, reading from the report, said the multiple racing grooves on the LVMS glass-smooth racing surface gave drivers a false sense of security racing inches apart at more than 200 m.p.h.
“What was also witnessed was almost unlimited movement, and that’s the track geometry,” Barnhart said. “Almost unrestricted movement was experienced. That increased the chance of car-to-car contact, and made it more difficult to predict the movement of each car and driver. The accident likelihood was increased.
“While we’ve had pack racing at other racetracks before, such as Chicagoland or Texas or other one and a half mile high‑banked ovals, there is always a limit. You can be two wide or three wide, but at times when you got to the upper lane of Texas or Chicago, whether it’s dusty, the grip level lowered, whatever, you couldn’t use the entire racetrack.
“What was evident in the Las Vegas event was that the entire racetrack was usable and the lanes were limitless. That was a variable that had not been seen before.”
The report said the positioning of the fence post that struck the fatal blow in the crash was not to blame.
Canada’s Paul Tracy, for one, has been advocating that the posts that hold the fencing around almost all race tracks be on the inside of those barriers.
Barnhart said that even if the post has been inside the fencing, the result would have been the same.
“The chassis (of Wheldon’s No. 77 Dallara) impacted a post along the right side of the tub, that went ... through the cockpit,” Barnhart said. “The pole intruded in the cockpit and made contact with driver’s helmet and head. His injury was limited to his head.
“He had two forces — the first through a head injury criteria that usually doesn’t produce an injury. During that crash sequence, the data measured 12-13 impacts, and one of those impacts measured a measurable head injury criteria.
“The second force produced the non-survivable blunt force trauma. The SAFER barrier and fence appeared to have functioned. The impact with the fence was (a) location, direction and chance result.”
The report also rejected the theory that the large grid — a season-high 34 race cars — was a contributing cause of the tragedy.
In fact Barnhart said that a pre-race inspection of LVMS showed the track could accommodate as many as 37 IndyCar-type race cars.
However, on Lap 11 — between Turns 1 and 2 — 15 race cars began a series of wrecks that culminated in Wheldon’s death.
The preliminary study did release — in detail — what happened in the seconds before the fatal accident:
“The No. 77 (Wheldon) had achieved a maximum speed of 224 m.p.h on the front straightaway ... as the chain reaction of the crash increased, and more race cars became involved, the No. 77 stayed low on the race track consistent with an attempt to avoid the race cars crashing up against the outside retaining wall ... This gathering of race cars is directly in front of (Wheldon) and effectively blocked the path of the No. 77, which was about two race car lengths behind.
“Approximately 3.8 seconds before impact, the driver of the No. 77 reduced throttle to about 55%. Approximately one second later, the throttle was reduced even further, down to less than 10% and the throttle remained in this position until contact. (Wheldon) applied the brakes for approximately 2.4 seconds prior to contact, and had decelerated to a speed of 165 m.p.h as the right front of the No. 77 made contact with the left rear of the No. 83 (Charlie Kimball).”
The report came on the same day a new Dallara race car, the DW12 named in honour of Wheldon, was being delivered to race teams.
That car is currently undergoing further tests to beef up safety standards in the hopes that another track death can be avoided in the future.
HIGHLIGHTS OF INDYCAR PROBE
— Drivers were able to use the entire track surface at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with no limits. That created dangerous racing conditions in the pack, because there was no reliable or predictable line in which cars would travel.
— Wheldon was traveling 224 m.p.h. just before the crash and had slowed to 165 m.p.h at the time of impact. His airborne car turned and collided with a fence post, cockpit first. The post “intruded” into the cockpit directly striking Wheldon’s helmet. Wheldon had no other injuries.
— The report ruled out that the post’s positioning was the cause of the fatality because the car was travelling at such a high rate of speed that the impact with the post would have resulted in the same outcome whether it was on the inside or the outside.
— The record 34 race cars in the race did not contribute to the accident.