INDYCAR provides answers in Wheldon report

IndyCar commentary — By on December 16, 2011 12:54 pm
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On Thursday, INDYCAR announced the findings of its investigation into the fatal accident at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that claimed the life of two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon on October 16.  While no earth-shattering information came from the report, the firm conclusions and openness of the proceedings was a welcome change from past investigations of other sanctions bodies and the somewhat distant stance that INDYCAR itself has taken over the past two months since the accident.

Getting the ugly out of way up front, INDYCAR did confirm that Dan was killed by a blunt force trauma to the head when Dan’s helmet was struck by a fence post holding the catching fencing in place.  The post made contact with the helmet near Dan’s right jaw and fractured the shell of the helmet.  The impact was such that the helmet broke the head-restraining collar insert in Dan’s car into three pieces.  Though all resuscitative efforts were exhausted, such an impact was deemed by INDYCAR to be “non-survivable.”

The natural reaction to this type of conclusion is to suggest that INDYCAR should investigate and begin to move toward a new era of closed-cockpit racing.  This to me in a knee-jerk reaction and one that should be fully and thoughtfully considered before moving forward.   I realize there have been several occurrences of debris entering into the cockpit and causing great harm to the drivers (Senna, da Matta, Massa, etc.), but there is a great tradition of open-cockpit racing in the United States and around the world that should not be disregarded because of a few isolated incidents.  I understand that some series have begun to go in that direction (specifically some sports car series) and that many traditionalists initially balked when sprint cars were fitted with roll cages in the 1960s, but completely closing the cockpit of an Indy car is a step that I believe goes too far.

Another topic that has garnered much attention since the accident is the fence design at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.  Unlike the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and tracks owned by ISC, the LVMS fence places the large 4-in supporting posts on the track side of the system and the wire fencing mesh on the spectator side.  Many have pointed to this as a design flaw and a critical factor in Wheldon’s fatal accident.  INDYCAR, however, concluded the design was not a factor in the accident, and although they would prefer to see the posts on the spectator side of the fencing, they believe it was a non-factor in this situation.  I have maintained such a stance since the first reports of this situation surfaced only days after the accident.  The fact is that the fencing mesh is designed to keep pieces of debris out of the grandstands.  It is neither intended nor designed to keep the car from hitting the support posts.  The mesh does not provide any structural value in keeping the cars from the posts.  Whether it is on the inside of the outside, the car will still hit the post if heading in that direction, and the results will be every bit as destructive.  The perfect example is Mike Conway’s accident at the 2010 Indianapolis 500.  In the picture below, it is evident that Conway’s car hit the post without regard to the fact it was placed on the spectator side of the fence.  It was hitting this post that broke Conway’s tub and caused significant injury to his lower extremities.  If a 1500-pound car is headed towards a fence post at more than 150 mph, the fence mesh will not provide protection or deflection of the car away from the supports.  That isn’t to say, of course, that research shouldn’t continue in an effort to develop a more appropriate system, and I do hope a more effective fencing system can be engineered in the very near future.  However, the design of this fence, although an easy target, had no impact on the outcome of these events.

Mike Conway's accident on the final lap of the 2010 Indianapolis 500 demonstrates a car will hit a fence support inside or outside of fencing mesh. (Photo courtesy of Scott Richardson Photography)

What was a factor, however, was the track itself.  Because of a number of factors, drivers were able to use almost the entire width of the track at Las Vegas with very little consequence, or as Brian Barhnart stated, they were granted nearly “unlimited movement… without the restraints of natural racing grooves.”  The natural tendency is to focus completely and solely on the track banking, but the issue goes much deeper than that.  While the track’s variable banking no doubt played a large role in this incident, it is only one piece of the larger puzzle.  The maximum banking at LVMS is 20°, about 4° less than at Texas Motor Speedway.  However, the pack racing at TMS has been significantly reduced over the past several years, and separation between cars, though not necessarily easy, can be achieved.  The massive grip levels at LVMS can be attributed to pavement age and type (which both greatly affect friction levels), banking, turn radius, and a host of other factors.  Blanketing all “high-banked” ovals into a single category and saying that all should be removed from the INDYCAR schedule is short-sided and unfair.  Singling out just the 1.5-mile ovals is also naïve.  While many fans are clamoring for the return of INDYCAR to Michigan International Speedway, many fail to realize that the 18° banking at MIS is identical to the banking at Chicagoland Speedway, yet the racing is completely different at the two tracks.  (In theory, the greater turn radius at Michigan should make it easier to drive, all other things being equal.)  Likewise, both Kentucky Speedway and Auto Club (California) Speedway are banked at 14° but also have completely different racing characteristics.  In other words, the amount and closeness of pack racing depends on many more factors than just the track’s banking.  All of those “other” factors must be considered on a track-by-track basis before determining whether a track should or should not be included on future INDYCAR schedules.

I was also pleased that INDYCAR squashed the idea that Dan’s participation in the Go Daddy challenge had any significant impact on the sequence of events.  Many in the national media cried in the days following the accident that Dan’s participation, and by extension Randy Bernard’s offering of the promotion, was a causal factor in Dan’s death.  Unfortunately, few of them seemed to realize that Dan had actually only qualified 29th out of 32 cars that attempted to qualify.  (He would have actually started 28th because the #44 car of Buddy Rice, who qualified 19th was moved to the rear of the field for a rules infraction during his qualifying run.)  To suggest that Dan was unjustifiably at the back of the field solely because of the $2.5 million he was trying to win is completely ridiculous.  Every bit as ludicrous are the variations of this claim such as Dan driving beyond his capabilities to win the money or that Dan’s skilled weren’t as sharp as they should have been because he had only driven two races in 2011 prior to the Las Vegas race.  Dan was a champion, a driver that had just completed a 300-mile race two weeks prior at Kentucky Speedway, and a driver that would have driven 100% whether he was driving for $25 or $2.5 million.  That’s just who Dan was.  To suggest he only ran this race for the money, and ran it beyond his abilities, is disgustingly insulting.

One aspect that has gotten a bit overlooked, especially by those people who seek any opportunity to deride INDYCAR and find some sort of demented joy in this tragedy, is that the eight-year old Dallara IR03 actually performed admirably in this situation and exactly as designed (arguments about the car flying 325 feet in the air notwithstanding).  The tub, or the monocoque cocoon, showed significant signs of damage from impact with the fence and every conceivably detachable piece of the car was torn away, but Dan suffered no other bodily injuries besides the fatal blow to the helmet.  If Dan made impact only a few inches in either other direction, there is a very high likelihood he would have survived with no significant injuries.  In an impact of that nature, such a finding is absolutely astounding.  Likewise, of the 14 other drivers involved, none suffered any life-threatening injuries.  Most seriously, Will Power suffered a compression fracture in his back, most likely when he car slammed back down on the pavement from an unspecified height (my own estimate is about 10-12 feet) while hurling approximately 315 feet through the air, and Pippa Mann suffered a significant burn injury to her right hand.

Additionally, it is significant that the report notes all personal safety equipment on Dan and in the #77 car performed as intended.  During the Dale Earnhardt investigation in 2001, blame was originally placed on Bill Simpson and Simpson Race Products when a report surfaced saying Dale’s seat belts had failed, leading in part to Dale’s fatal injuries.  (Later investigations revealed the seat belts performed as expected and were not a factor in Earnhardt’s death.)  In this report, INDYCAR specifically mentions that the seat belts and other restraints performed as intended and were intact throughout the accident.

While the above findings are important and critical to the investigation, there are a few items from the report that I do take issue with.  The most important is the role that the field size played in this accident and the implication that such an accident is as likely to occur with 26 cars as it is with 34.  The report specifically says that with 34 cars, each car was afforded, on average 233 feet of track space.  This statistic might be important for road racing applications or might have been considered during the early history of oval track racing (for instance, the 33 cars in the Indianapolis 500 were originally determined by assigning 400 feet of track space to each car).  However, in today’s INDYCAR oval racing, that is about as useful as saying it’s plenty warm on Earth because the inner core of molten lava is a toasty 10,000 °F.  The more important spacing calculation is based on the text of the report saying that all 34 cars were contained within 1/5 of the track length at the time of the accident, or roughly 1600 feet.  Using that distance, each car was afforded approximately 46.5 feet of track length, not 233 feet as previously mentioned.  At 224 mph, the distance from the nose of one car to the nose of the following car was covered, on average, in only 0.141 seconds.  Taking the 15-foot length of the racecar into consideration, the distance from the front of one car to the rear of the preceding car was covered in only 0.096 seconds.  In other words, by the time a driver blinked his eye, he was already, on average, past where the previous car was.  Even if one assumes that entire field was running in two-by-two formation and hence the spacing was doubled, having an average of 0.3 seconds or less to respond to a situation is unrealistic over the course of 400 turns.  When you increase the field size by roughly 20%, it is naïve to think the likelihood of open-wheel contact is not increased in parallel.

A couple other issues that I would have liked to see further addressed in the report concern the #4 car of JR Hildebrand and the #30 car of Pippa Mann.  Regarding Hildebrand’s car, it greatly concerns me that the black box failed during this accident and reduced the amount of data available from that car.  Black boxes for aircraft are designed and manufactured to withstand impacts, shocks, and temperatures far greater than what Hildebrand experienced in Las Vegas.  Granted, those boxes are incredible robust and heavy, likely far too heavy for practical application in Indy cars, but nonetheless, the data collection black box in Hildebrand’s car should not have failed upon impact.  I hope this is a completely isolated event, but I would have liked to have seen the INDYCAR report expand upon this a bit further rather than simply mentioning it in passing.

Regarding Pippa Mann, I would have liked to have seen a bit more discussion on what caused her injury.  When I last spoke to Pippa, neither she nor the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team knew exactly what caused the burn damage to her hand as her gloves were still intact and showed no unusual signs of damage.  Could this have been a defect with the manufacturing of Pippa’s gloves that allowed heat to penetrate through to the skin, or could there be other issues in play here?  Have other drivers suffered significant burns without any apparent damage to their gloves, firesuit, or helmet?  The findings and solutions are probably not within the scope of the Wheldon accident investigation, but acknowledgment of the situation and indication that it is being addressed would have been warranted.

The most notable confirmation from this report is that INDYCAR considers this tragedy to have been not the result of a single, isolated factor but rather the result of a “perfect storm” of events all transpiring to cause a catastrophic event.  I understand that we can, and many people want to, play “what-if” games all day long.  The fact is that thousands of isolated events had to happen at precisely the exact moments for this tragedy to occur.  What if Dan hadn’t started 34th?  What if Vitor Meira hadn’t lost control and slid into Charlie Kimball?  What if Dan had touched the brakes 1/100of a second earlier or harder or not as hard?  Isolating any single one of these events is a fruitless exercise because every response is a reaction to more stimuli than we non-racers can possibly fathom.  That isn’t to say, of course, that the racing industry should not examine every conceivable aspect of this accident, break is down into its pain-stakingly minute details, and work to improve as many aspects as possible.  From every tragedy comes knowledge and an advancement in understanding of the circumstances leading to such an event.  This report from INDYCAR is a good first step, but it won’t be, nor should it be, the final step.

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