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Dissecting IndyCar's findings on Wheldon's accident

by Tim Wohlford
Thursday, December 15, 2011

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The fence post that Wheldon hit
It is a natural thing to wonder “why” when someone is taken from us.  It is equally common that all of the information in the world doesn’t provide any comfort, and only leads to more questions.  Such is the case of today’s IndyCar press conference, announcing the findings of the investigation into Dan Wheldon’s death at Las Vegas.  Some facts from today’s press conference at IMS:
- Dan Wheldon did hit a fence post, and that was the cause of the fatal injuries.  The post penetrated the tub by the pedals, but only struck Dan in the head.  Dan’s only injuries were head injuries – first a non-fatal minor wound in the initial impact (there were 12-13 recorded impacts on that car) and then the fatal one in the fence. 
- Dan hit the brakes 2.4 sec before contact, but was still travelling 165 at first impact.  He went 325 feet in the air before hitting the fence. 
- It’s the job of the posts and the cables to keep the car inside of the track, NOT the fence.  The fence itself is only designed to keep the debris away from the fans, not keep the car inside of the track.  (Hitting a post when tossed into the fence isn’t uncommon – for instance, Mike Conway hit a post at Indy, only his car went in bottom-first instead of top-first.)
- IndyCar’s investigation showed no link between the position of the posts at Vega (on the track-side, instead of the grandstands-side) and the outcome.  In their view, the forces of impact were so great that it wouldn’t have mattered. 
- IndyCar says that the number of cars was not a leading factor in the race.  They point out that every driver and every team had run at least 1 IndyCar race that season, and there were 5 Indy 500 winners in that field. 
- IndyCar faults themselves with not having done sufficient testing.  Making comparisons to CART’s misadventures at Texas Motor Speedway, where tests were some 20 mph slower than the practice speeds, IndyCar officials say that the speeds in a 2 car practice didn’t compare with those in practice, since there were no dozen-car drafts in testing. 
- However, multi-car drafting is nothing new – anyone remember MIS?  The real culprit, say IndyCar officials, is that there was / were no racing “groove” or “grooves”.  On most tracks, drivers can safely assume that cars won’t do certain things or drive on certain parts of the track.  However, at Vegas, every car was able to drive pretty much everywhere, which lead to a lot of moves in a lot of places, which lead to the kind of chaos we saw.  Again they fault themselves as not having done sufficient testing to catch this problem. 
- Yes, if they get things figured out, IndyCar will return to the Vegas oval.  There is a committee looking at racing on 1.5 mile ovals, including Vegas.  However, every “cookie cutter” track is different – which explains why IndyCar did okay at Chicagoland and Texas but not Vegas.  Therefore, their findings will probably encourage racing on 1.5 mile ovals, but probably have some ideas on how to make the show safer. 
Finally --
IndyCar officials point out that the old Dallara chassis was drive over 2 million miles with only 1 fatality, that coming on the last lap before they were retired.  (Paul Dana was driving a Panoz – I looked it up, thinking IndyCar people had made a big mistake).  As Derrick Daley opined in the Q&A session, this car was the safest open-wheeled car to be in if you’re gonna hit something hard.

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