Las Vegas Accident Investigation Press Conference
RANDY BERNARD: Thank you. Good morning. This morning we released the results of the Las Vegas investigation. It's only been two months since this tragic event, and it's been a very difficult month for everyone in the racing community, as Dan was loved by all.
INDYCAR has undertaken an investigation that includes the compiling of all data to better understand the dynamics of the accident, the performance of the race cars in the accident and the causes of Dan's non‑survival injuries.
This report is to document and summarize the facts ascertains and analysis of the data and information obtained and to make some observations as ongoing racing issues. As past, current and future experiences cumulative, these observations will be a part of a continuous process to improve racing so it's both competitive and as safe as possible.
INDYCAR is grateful for the extensive cooperation for each of the drivers and teams that participated in the event, the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, emergency personnel, and the Clark County Office of the Coroner and Medical Examiner.
In 2010, INDYCAR and (Speedway Motorsports Inc.) began negotiations of the possible return of IndyCar to races in Las Vegas. INDYCAR and SMI reached an agreement where the IZOD IndyCar Series and Firestone Indy Lights would compete at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series race at Las Vegas included 34 drivers. Starting field size is determined upon a number of factors, such as length and width of the racetrack, pit space capability, and tradition, such as the 33‑car field at Indy 500.
Based upon these factors, it was decided that Las Vegas Motor Speedway could accommodate a 37‑car starting field. Although we only fielded 34 cars, the actual occurrence of the October 16th incident by itself does not change this conclusion.
This incident and the consequences could have occurred with any size starting field at any track. However, as Brian will discuss in the investigation findings, the experience with freedom of movement during the October 16th race does create questions whether an IndyCar starting field of any size is appropriate in the future. This will be a topic for further review and investigation based upon the 2012 car dynamic.
Among the 34 entries in the October 16th race, each of the drivers had participated in a previous 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series event, and every team has participated in the Indy 500 in which Dan was a winning driver.
In fact, besides Dan, four other drivers had previously won the Indy 500 at least one time. INDYCAR offered Dan, a defending winner of the 2011 Indy 500, the opportunity to participate in the Go Daddy INDYCAR Challenge at Las Vegas. The INDYCAR challenge provided Dan with an opportunity to earn $2.5 million for himself and $2.5 million for a fan selected through a sweepstakes if Dan was the official winner of the race. INDYCAR held qualifications on Friday, October 14th.
Amidst speculation of Dan's starting position, it's important to note that other seasoned racers were in the rear. The competitors started the race in their respective qualifying positions with the exception of four race cars that were moved to the rear of the field due to penalties and qualifications, a common occurrence in INDYCAR.
As a result, three of these race cars were moved to the rear of the starting field in accordance with IndyCar Series rules. The number 77, Dan Wheldon, qualified in 28th position but was moved to the 34th starting position as part of the promotion.
At this time, I'd like Brian Barnhart, president of the operations division to discuss the findings of the investigation.
BRIAN BARNHART: Good morning, everyone. As Randy said, going in to discuss the findings of the investigative report here, and I'm going to go back and begin with our inspections and on‑track testing. As is customary protocol in INDYCAR, in preparation of any new racing event at a permanent facility, INDYCAR conducts a series of on‑site tests and inspections and an on‑track test to confirm the compatibility of the INDYCAR cars to a racetrack.
The inspections in the test include a review of various facility infrastructures, areas, such as the track fencing, the track surface, the barriers, pit lane, the garages, the medical center, the technical inspection area, the fuel servicing area, the timing and scoring lines, the media center, and race control.
The initial inspection occurred the first week of November of 2010 and was conducted by myself, and Kevin Blanch the technical director of the IZOD IndyCar Series in the presence of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway representatives.
The compatibility and performance testing occurred on November 15th of 2010. The test included two cars and two driver combinations selected by the IZOD IndyCar Series and Firestone.
One car was driven by Ryan Briscoe of Team Penske. The second car was driven by Scott Dixon of Target Chip Ganassi Racing. Over the course of the two-day test, the two cars completed a total of 400 laps with a top speed of 214.456 miles an hour. The test was then followed by private testing at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway by IZOD IndyCar Series teams as well as Firestone Indy Lights teams as the individual teams prepared for the race.
Early in the week of the race and on each day of the event, IndyCar also conducted race ready inspections each day of the event. During the event, and more specifically the race weekend, the IndyCar Series cars completed a total of 2,910 laps in practice by the end of the day on Friday, October 14, 2011.
Through all of these laps, the race cars were monitored by IndyCar driver coach and three time Indianapolis 500 winner, Johnny Rutherford, IndyCar official observers, and the IndyCar race control and operations team.
With regards to the starting field, as Randy said, the maximum size of a starting field for a race event is determined by numerous factors as IndyCar determines appropriate. These include, event promoter requirements and venue specific characteristics, as well as tradition, as Randy mentioned, with the 33 at Indianapolis.
On the venue specific characteristics, a primary consideration has always been given to pit lane space, because of the minimum pit box dimension required to execute a pit stop due to the turning radius of our cars, keeping in mind that our cars and drivers, the driver has to bring the car to the fuel on pit road due to the thick fuel tank and fuel hose. Because of that combination with the turning radius, we've always required a minimum pit box of 35 feet long.
Based on those parameters there, the Las Vegas pit road could have accommodated 37 cars. We put 34 cars out with pit boxes of 38 foot length.
Another consideration is the racing surface itself. With Las Vegas Motor Speedway being a one and a half mile track, 34 race cars permitted 233 feet of track per car, which is ample space on the racetrack. So there is plenty of room on the racetrack.
Obviously other series race with more cars there, but with the 34 cars of the IndyCar that's we ran that weekend, we had plenty of space on the racetrack for them and ample space in pit road as well to safely accommodate all 34 cars.
The overview of the investigation. We hired a third party investigation review that was arranged for the attention of nationally respected experts. Michael Pepe and Stuart Nightenhelser of Wolfe Technical Services provided independent assurances that the investigation protocol, the evidence examined and reviewed, and conclusions reached are consistent and appropriate to the standard scientific and engineering investigation methods. Michael and Stuart's resumes are attached as Exhibit D in the investigation report.
IndyCar has analyzed data, video, still photographs and the physical evidence to better understand the dynamics of the accident and to document what occurred, including the performance of the chassis and the racetrack during the crash. Members of the investigation team also had interviews with the drivers, participants and team members and participated in meetings with drivers, team representatives and team owners. INDYCAR utilized all the available data, including data from the accident data recorders carried on board each race car involved in the crash, and the on‑board pipe telemetry of the teams themselves, timing and scoring data from the IndyCar timing system, and reports filed by track safety personnel, technical personnel, race control personnel, medical personnel, and information provided by the chief medical officer of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and the Clark County coroner.
The number 77 car driven by Dan Wheldon has been thoroughly examined as well a thorough examination of the helmet worn by Dan has taken place.
In terms of the crash investigation and kind of walking through what took place, a multi‑car accident involving 15 identifiable cars occurred in turns one and two of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on lap 11 of the 200‑lap scheduled event. The accident began as a result of contact between the 06 of Jim Hinchcliffe and the 17 of Wade Cunningham as they entered the first turn. The 17 of Cunningham spun toward the infield while running in twelfth position. This initial contact was an occurrence common to racing as was each subsequent contact.
That contact was followed by contact among the No. 4 of JR Hildebrand with the No. 17 of Cunningham, as well as the number 15 of Jay Howard. The right front of the No. 4, Hildebrand, made contact with the left rear of No. 17 of Cunningham, triggering a multi‑car crash. The 4 car climbed the left rear of the 17 and became airborne for a brief period of time.
The 15 of Howard made contact with the 17, and then the 15 slid up the racetrack and hit the outside wall with the right side of his car. The 17 then carried on, made contact with the No. 22 car driven by Townsend Bell. The 22 spun and hit the wall with his left side. The 4 car came down almost on top of the 17 and both of them hit the outside wall almost as one with their right sides.
The 4 car of Hildebrand was traveling at 215 miles an hour in traffic prior to the accident. Approximately 1.6 seconds before making contact with the 17 car of Cunningham, the 4 car of Hildebrand reduced his throttle from 100% to 15%. The brakes were applied by the driver of the 4 car approximately 4/10 of a second before impact with the 17. The speed of the 4 car reduced from 215 miles an hour to 201 miles per hour at the time of the impact.
The only available information from the 4 car is the pie telemetry as the accident data recorder was damaged in the accident and did not function properly. The 4 car of Hildebrand was airborne for approximately 125 feet with all four tires off the track. The attitude of the race car was level with the racetrack with the front slightly higher than the back end of the car.
The driver of the 4 car, JR Hildebrand, was transported to the hospital and kept overnight for observation and released the next day. As the chain reaction continued, the impact among the number 14 of Vitor Meira, the number 15 of E.J. Viso, the number 83 of Charlie Kimball, and the number 77 of Dan Wheldon was the next event.
The 77 of Dan Wheldon had achieved a maximum speed of 224 miles per hour on the front straightaway, and had achieved the 24th position in the race. As the chain reaction of the crash increased and more cars became involved, the number 77 of Dan stayed low on the racetrack consistent with an attempt to avoid race cars crashing up against the outside wall.
Several race cars were in a cluster directly in front of the 77, including the 9 of Scott Dixon, the 10 of Dario Franchitti, the 14 of Meira, the 59 of Viso, and the 83 of Kimball. As the 14 began to spin toward the infield, the 14 made contact with the 59 of Viso and the 83 of Kimball. This gathering of cars is directly in front of the 77, and effectively blocked the path of the 77 which was about two race car lengths behind.
Approximately 3.8 seconds before impact, Dan reduced the throttle from 100% to 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. Dan applied the brakes approximately 2.4 seconds prior to contact, and had decelerated from 224 miles an hour to 165 miles an hour as he made contact with the right front of the 77 on the left rear of the 83. The impact of the 77 and 83 registered 24 G's longitudinal, and negative 23 G's vertical on the accident data recorder of the 77 car.
The 77 became airborne with the nose up vertical orientation and began to roll to the right. The right rear of the 77 made contact with the racing surface, and the chassis then traveled rearward first in an upright position toward the safer barrier in turn two.
The 77 traveled in a nose up, semi airborne state for approximately 325 feet. The chassis of the 77 impacted a post along the right side of the tub and created a deep defect in the tub that extended from the pedal bulk head, along the upper border of the tub and through the cockpit. As the race car passed by, the pole intruded into the cockpit and made contact with the driver's helmeted head.
Dan's injury was limited to his head injury. During the accident Dan appeared to suffer two distinct head forces during the accident. The first head force created levels through a head injury criteria, also known as a HIC number, that normally does not produce any injury. These numbers were determined as after the initial impact with the 83 car, and Dan's car traveled in contact with the racetrack and the 59 car all the way from the initial impact all the way up until hitting the catch fence.
During that crash sequence, the accident data recorder measured 12 or 13 impacts. It is during that timeframe that one of those impacts measured a measurable head injury criteria number for Dan. That is the number that does not normally produce an injury. The number was low enough that that is not an injury causing moment.
The second force was a physical force and a physical impact. It is the second force that produced a nonsurvivable blunt force injury trauma to Dan's head.
There was no evidence of mechanical or structural issues contributing to this accident. The SAFER Barrier and the fence system appeared to have functioned as designed during the accident. The impact with the fence that resulted in Dan's nonsurvivable injuries, involved the circumstances of location, direction and orientation that were the chance result of previous interactions.
Obviously, the accident has raised a lot of issues. And moving forward to address some of those issues includes the question around the suitability of IndyCars to race on high banked ovals. INDYCAR has assembled a technical committee to focus on the aerodynamic and mechanical considerations related to one and a half mile, high banked ovals.
The chairman of the committee is Will Phillips, the IZOD IndyCar Series vice president of technology. The attendees are IndyCar Series team engineers; in addition, representatives from chassis manufacturer Dallara are also invited to attend.
INDYCAR has determined it would not be appropriate to frame its analysis of the suitability of IndyCar Series race cars to high bank ovals by looking at tracks of this classification as a general category. In other words, each high banked oval has unique characteristics, and each should be considered individually.
The banking itself is not the only geometry taken into consideration. There are a number of factors, including the length and width of the track, the banking, the progressiveness of the banking, the length of the transition, the overall grip of the asphalt, and the coalition of friction.
There are a number of factors that lead and create to a total geometry package and consideration at each track that should be taken on an individual basis, not simply by banking alone.
INDYCAR and CART and Champ Car have successfully conducted many races over numerous years on courses that meet the definition of high banked ovals. Due in part to the total geometry of the track, each track has its own unique routes around the circuit that optimize speed and handling capabilities. Most of you know these are referred to as the racing groove. These grooves create restrictions on where a driver can place the car on the track and remain competitive.
Most tracks have a limited number of racing grooves. For example, it's not unusual for ovals to have only one or two racing grooves, including here at Indianapolis. 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 examination of the video of the October 16th accident demonstrates normal pack racing that is common on high banked ovals. However, what was also witnessed was nearly unlimited movement on the track surface under race conditions. This capability of relatively free movement on the track without restraints of natural racing grooves must be attributed to the overall track geometry beyond banking.
Whatever the reason, the combination of the track geometry factors allowed for relative unrestricted movement on the race within the racing pack that had not previously been experienced.
This movement not only allowed for increased car‑to‑car contact, but made it more difficult for drivers to predict the movement of other drivers around them. As a result, the opportunity for this accident was increased. While the accident could have occurred at any track at any time, the dynamic of the current car and the overall track geometry at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway under race conditions appeared to have been causal to this accident.
I'd like to talk further a little bit about that and talk about the difference between and the understanding of how those conditions presented themselves on race day alone. It is virtually impossible for us to replicate race conditions, as much as we do in the feasibility and compatibility testing, as much as we do in practice. Some teams are out working on qualification setups and run by themselves. Some teams are out running in packs.
But you never get an opportunity to run with everyone out there trying to achieve in practice what they do when the green flag drops in the race. In those conditions, 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.
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 time when's 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 useable and the lanes were limitless. That was a variable that had not been seen before.
RANDY BERNARD: In conclusion, the accident was significant due to the number of race cars damaged, but more importantly through the nonsurvivable survivable injuries to Dan Wheldon. 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 certainly the result would be any different if one or more of the factors did not exist.
The race car being driven at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway has evolved into a race vehicle with an unmatched safety record in Open Wheel Racing. More than 2 million miles have been driven in the IR3 Dallara with this being the first fatality.
The 2012 racing season ushers in an era of a new IndyCar and the opportunity for continued safety advancements. Over the next few days, the new car design is being delivered to a number of drivers and teams for testing.
INDYCAR has concluded that prior to the racing and returning at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, further testing is appropriate to evaluate the dynamic of the race car and the specific geometry to this track, which is why they'll not be part of the 2012 schedule.
While the new car design is expected to continue the safety and performance evolution, there was nothing found in the performance of any of the race cars participating that was a factor in causing this racing incident.
Dan Wheldon was instrumental in the testing and development of the new car and the safety and innovations that it represents. INDYCAR is committed to safety, and this report is an interim step to INDYCAR's ongoing efforts to improve Motorsports safety. This accident and its consequences is another reminder of the risk associated with racing, regardless of efforts to make it safer.
Our thoughts, our prayers and deepest condolences of IndyCar and Open Wheel Racing community continue to go out to Dan's family.
Q. Being familiar with significant racing cars on a global level, I can absolutely tell you that if a driver was to hit anything hard, without a doubt, in INDYCAR, in my opinion is by far the safest car to hit anything hard, which is a reflection of the developments from IndyCar over all the last 20 years because of what you learn in accidents. I just have one question, Brian. The initial impact from the post that made the mark on the tub was not the nonsurvivable injury. Do you know what his head actually hit that did actually cause the nonsurvivable injury?
BRIAN BARNHART: Actually the post is the cause of the nonsurvivable injury. The initial impact that took place and created the hit number of the injury criteria number that developed as the 77 rode along the racetrack and the 59 car after the initial impact before getting to the fence.
The second head force that Dan experienced was with the post, as the post due to the location, the orientation and direction, the exposure of the cockpit to the post, that created the nonsurvivable injury.
Q. It appears the posts are on the track side of the fence at opposed to here in Indianapolis where the posts on the grandstand side of the fence. Did the fence design with the posts on the track side contribute to the injury in this accident?
BRIAN BARNHART: The fence appeared to perform as designed. From a fencing standpoint, there is no indication whatsoever that had the fabric of the mesh been on the inside that the outcome of this accident would have been any different. While we can envision some scenarios where the fabric being on the inside would be beneficial, in this case, it simply doesn't appear that it would have made any difference.
So because of that, our preference is for the fabric to be on the inside, but it wouldn't have made any difference on the outcome of this accident.
Q. Brian or Randy, looking at this report now and what stands out the most from what you can learn from this moving forward? It seems to be maybe as you guys described it, the increased or unrestricted movement by the cars that it's maybe something you can use later on here?
BRIAN BARNHART: That is the saddest part, obviously. When you have a tragedy like this, it's disappointing, but sometimes the only thing good that comes out of it is improvement in the future.
Obviously, we've lost a very dear family member in Dan, and our thoughts and support are always going to be with Susie and the Wheldon family. As you say, the best thing we can do is take this situation and try to learn from it and move forward.
I think what we're going to learn, and again, safety is an evolutionary process. The 2012 car has been under design for about 18 months, and many components of the IR3 have carried over into the 2012 car design, as well as several areas of improvement that we're looking for as the continued evolution of that safety.
There will be changes made. Some of them are pretty small and may seem insignificant, but they actually can have huge effects, and that includes looking for a standardized location on the steering system of a warning to the drivers of an unsafe condition on the racetrack. We're looking at improving the head surround system to make driver extrication on their own or from a safety team member easier.
I think one of the things that's going to come out of it that's going to be a big deal for us is as we talked about extensive testing to do our best to replicate race conditions. To identify the overall track geometry at any track where we are looking to run IndyCars to come up with the best understanding of the aerodynamic package, the technical specifications to allow us to race there as well as we possibly can.
Q. Do you want to go back to Las Vegas? And what will you need to learn in the testing sessions with the new car that maybe will be different or make you feel more comfortable about going back there?
RANDY BERNARD: I'll answer the first part of that and turn the technical part over to Brian. I think that Las Vegas is a great city as a resort destination. I think our fans, our sponsors, everyone likes and loves Las Vegas. It's a great place for a race, but I don't want to go back there if the conditions aren't right and it's not safe for our race cars.
BRIAN BARNHART: As far as going back, I think what we're looking to do, you get to a point where you don't want to get to the limitless racing capabilities that we had at Vegas. So I think what we're going to try to do is identify an aerodynamic package that makes it more challenging for the drivers.
What we had in Vegas was a situation where the track and the conditions and the combination of the overall geometry and the restrictions we had to put in place for the cars to control the speed created limitless racing lines.
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. I think that will restrict and make the racing better as we look down the road and returning to Las Vegas.
Q. You had three cars get airborne. Can you ‑‑
BRIAN BARNHART: Actually we had four.
Q. With a blocked track, new cars, old cars, is it safe to say cars are going to get airborne in that scenario where wheel‑to‑wheel contact comes into play?
BRIAN BARNHART: Obviously one of the thing that's we're focusing on with the 2012 car, and this has been in play long before the October 16th accident, we have always been looking at ways to reduce the interaction of wheel‑to‑wheel contact with Open Wheel cars. That will continue.
In answer to your question, there is no degree of certainty we can say that the 2012 car would behave any differently. We are making those changes in an effort to reduce the interaction of wheel‑to‑wheel contact and improving that situation. But, again, that is something that takes time and is an evolutionary process.
Q. I may be missing something here, but back to the positioning of the posts. If Davey Hamilton got tangled up in Texas, Kenny Brack did as well, and Dan himself also, but you're saying the positioning of the post isn't significant. If it isn't, why would you not then put the mesh on the track side so at least you eliminate getting tangled up in the posts? Would Dan have survived if the post were on the other side of the fencing?
BRIAN BARNHART: As I said, it does not look like the positioning of the mesh fabric would have changed the consequences of this accident at all. While we see some potential scenarios where the fabric being on the inside would have some benefit, there are sometimes when forces are so great that you have to remember that meshing, that fabric is the box wire fencing that is there to protect and keep the small debris pieces from flying into the grand stand.
The small fabric is not there to retain a car. That's the object of the post and the cables. The fabric of that meshing is there to protect the smaller debris pieces from going in, and the location of that fabric wouldn't have changed the outcome of this race at all. As we said, our preference is for it to be on the inside.
Q. Randy, after the Reno air tragedy and then our State Fair tragedy here, I had a discussion with a promoter who said, insuring these outdoor events could become a major issue. Is it ever a concern of yours that this incident was so high profile that insuring your events like this could become a significant issue?
RANDY BERNARD: If you look at the history of auto racing, this has always been something that could happen. I think if you look at the history of it, it continues to get better and better. As Brian has alluded to, it's about the evolution of the race car and how we can continue to work on making it safer. That's what our goal is. Part of this investigation was that. But what can we do to make that race car and our races safer?
Q. With the investigation now complete and your planning for 2012 now being completed, what is the timeframe for that?
RANDY BERNARD: Yes, first of all, we'd like to see that race schedule out by today or tomorrow.
Q. Can you talk a little bit about the testing that you're going to do at other high banked tracks at this point, Texas and those kinds of places?
BRIAN BARNHART: Well, obviously, the production of the race cars is one of the paramount first things to go. At this point in time we've only had two chassis out on the racetrack. We've had a Honda powered car and a Chevrolet powered car out. I think one of the things that's paramount to this testing is getting more cars out on the racetrack to do our best to try to replicate the race conditions and get a better understanding of the track geometry and aero packages for the racing at those venues.
Several teams will be taking delivery of this car this week. I think we have 15. And Will Phillips is here with us, and he can address that. But I think the first delivery of 15 or 17 cars is scheduled over the next few days. That will be a good thing for us to get more cars on track. We absolutely plan on testing to get a better understanding of those dynamics at each venue we run.
Q. You mentioned in the testing that Briscoe and Dixon did about 214 at Las Vegas, and that reminded me of what happened in Texas in 2001. Kenny Brack went testing 218, 220, and they went back and didn't race, but they practiced and qualified at 230, 235. You mentioned that setting a limit for the new car, a line they can't cross. How challenging is it going to be to get guys to go out and push that limit in testing and get them to go 225 in testing instead of 214?
BRIAN BARNHART: I think it is a challenge. That is one of the byproducts that comes out of this. They'll have an understanding of the requests and requirements to be on track as well as Firestone in picking the tires.
I think the importance of it, and one of the things that a demonstrator of the increase in speed was getting more cars out on the racetrack, obviously the draft becomes pretty critical. If you look in traffic, JR was only running 215. Dan's running 224. There is a nine mile an hour spread, and they were all in the same pack. Some of that is explained by the drafting aspect and component of being in race condition.
And you don't get that when you only have two cars doing the feasibility test. I think it is something you've identified. Something we'll have to do is get more cars on there and expect something more from the teams and the drivers in terms of the performance parameters we're setting to make sure we have a full and clear understanding of what our expectation is while we go back and race.
AMY KONRATH: I want to thank everyone for joining us today. We'll have copies of the press release and the full investigation report as you exit. Those will be posted to IndyCar.com media and also emailed out. Thank you very much for joining us.
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