Rethinking oval racing for IndyCar after Las Vegas

IndyCar

IndyCar, Las Vegas, 2011

The race begins at Las Vegas

IndyCar racing was shaken to its core ten days ago by the appalling crash which claimed the life of Dan Wheldon.

The scale of the accident and its terrible consequences has raised questions over the viability of open-wheel cars racing on ovals.

IndyCar must carefully consider how it responds to the crash in the months ahead.

The investigation

The aftermath of the crash drew comment from many quarters. Some rushed too quickly to pass judgement without taking time to consider the facts.

There were claims the field was substantially made up of inexperienced racers. In fact the drivers had made over 90 starts on average at this level (including Champ Car), and only two were in single-digits.

Some put about the idea that Wheldon was “driving too hard” in his effort to secure the one-off $5m prize for winning the race. This was understandably given short shrift by those best-placed to understand a racing driver’s mentality.

As Mario Andretti put it: “Dan Wheldon did not take mad risks because he was over-motivated by the $5m prize. To imply he drove different due to money, you offend his honour.”

IndyCar’s investigation into the accident is ongoing and we should not pre-judge its outcome. However some facts are already known and they give insight into how IndyCar embarked on a race that ended in unimaginable carnage.

Previous crashes

In the enormous 15-car crash, Wheldon’s was one of several cars launched into the air, where it struck the fencing at the top of the oval. It’s not hard to imagine how the terrible consequences of the crash might have been even worse.

IndyCar has seen several instances of cars being launched in this way in recent years. Ryan Briscoe survived such a crash at Chicagoland in 2005.

Three years later at Michigan Dario Franchitti’s car flew through the air after wheel-to-wheel contact with Wheldon. And Mike Conway was injured in last year’s Indianapols 500 after his car was launched into the fencing. These are not the only examples.

The suitability of this kind of barrier and the ability of the cars to withstand impact with them at near-maximum speed will surely be a focal point of the investigation.

But why have crashes of this kind have become increasingly prevalent in IndyCar racing? And was there anything different which led to the extraordinary violence of the Las Vegas crash?

Too fast, too close

IndyCar, Las Vegas, 2011

The tightly-bunched pack at Las Vegas

The Las Vegas crash began in ordinary racing conditions, like most of the examples given above (the exception being Conway, who hit Ryan Hunter-Reay who had slowed having run out of fuel).

The speed of the cars, the size of the field, and how closely they were running with each other, can all be seen as contributory factors. But none of these were entirely unprecedented.

The cars were lapping at average speeds of 360kph (223mph). This is far higher than a typical F1 race, but not out of the ordinary for IndyCars, where average speeds in excess of 385kph (240mph) have been seen in the past.

The field was closely-matched, with half a second covering the cars over a 25-second lap. This had also been the case at other 2.4km (1.5-mile) ovals earlier this year.

The usual limit of 28 cars had been waived for the event. But even so the 34-car field was not far in excess of previous peaks: The Indianapolis 500 had its customary 33 starters this year, albeit on a 4km (2.5-mile) track. There were 31 IndyCars on the grid for a race at Las Vegas in 1997.

Field spread

What made the crash at Las Vegas so destructive was not so much the size of the field, but the fact it did not spread out as quickly as usual after the start of the race.

Two weeks earlier at Kentucky, an oval of similar length, within ten laps of the start the first six cars had spread out and were covered by two seconds. The same was the case in the last race at Texas on another similar layout.

But at Las Vegas the field remained incredibly tight throughout the opening laps. The first 21 cars were still covered by two seconds after seven laps.

On lap 11, moments before carnage broke out, the first half of the field were compressed into just 1.25 seconds, the cars running three- and even four-abreast.

The slightest error by any of the drivers ahead would have acted as a spark in a tinderbox. The inevitable carnage was unleashed when Wade Cunningham and James Hinchcliffe touched – but in the circumstances neither should be blamed for the horror that unfolded.

The banking

Why was the field so tightly packed at Las Vegas? It hadn’t been so at IndyCar or Champ Car’s previous visits to the track, which last happened in 2000 and 2005 respectively.

Significantly, the banking at the track had been altered since then. The changes, built in 2006, progressively increased the angle of banking higher up the track, to make it easier for cars to run side-by-side.

Throughout the race weekend it was clear how easily the cars were able to lap the track flat-out. In qualifying the drivers were able to take the corners so easily they hardly needed to take a conventional racing line.

Instead they hugged the inside line all the way around to make the lap as short as possible, as can be seen in this video:

Car performance

The negligible performance difference between the runners may also have been down to most of the teams having used the same car for so long.

Las Vegas was the final race for the Dallara IR4 IndyCar chassis, which had been in service since 2004. Drivers and teams had spent eight years refining and perfecting their set-ups to the point where there was little to choose between them.

Championship contenders Will Power and Dario Franchitti did not qualify near the front, where one would expect to find them, but in the middle of the pack. They were four tenths of a second slower than the pole sitter and half a second ahead of the back row.

“You can?t run around in a pack like that”

IndyCar, Las Vegas, 2011

Paul Tracy said the circuit was too easy for the cars

There was too little in the car performance and track configuration to distinguish between the drivers. Series veteran Paul Tracy summed up the dangers of 34 cars running so close together at such speeds: “You can?t run around in a pack like that.

“You have to be able to go fast enough to spread the field out and be able to make clean, quick passes. We need more horsepower and a different aero package.

“You could go out on that particular track and run 25 laps on a set of tyres and it was like they weren?t even wearing. It?s so easy flat and there?s so much downforce that you?re hardly using the tyre.”

The spectacle of cars running close together and fighting for position is part of the appeal of IndyCar racing. In the Kentucky race, Ed Carpenter narrowly won a thrilling battle with Dario Franchitti to score his first IndyCar win by less than a hundredth of a second.

But the first dozen laps at Las Vegas was something quite different. This was NASCAR-style racing but with open-wheel cars lapping at 350kph (217mph) instead of 300kph (186mph).

In these circumstances, a crash on this scale was inevitable.

Making oval racing safer

The 2012 Indycar design

The 2012 Indycar design features rear wheel surrounds

Should IndyCar abandon ovals following the crash?

It would be a revolutionary decision for IndyCar racing – one that would end of the greatest events in motorsport, the Indianapolis 500, which marked its centenary earlier this year.

Before the events of Las Vegas, IndyCar had already taken steps towards improving safety while preserving its oval racing heritage. The switch to a new, safer chassis for 2012 had been planned for many months.

The oval-spec 2012 Dallara IndyCar, which was demonstrated prior to the race, features enclosed rear wheels to reduce the possibility of one car being launched from the back of another:

The car, which Wheldon tested earlier this year, will be named the DW12 in his honour.

Rethinking oval racing for IndyCars

Dan Wheldon, IndyCar, Las Vegas, 2011

Dan Wheldon, IndyCar, Las Vegas, 2011

Oval racing by its nature will always be one of the most dangerous forms of motor racing. Can the inevitable risk be brought within acceptable limits?

I believe so. The now-defunct CART series had a 14-year spell with no driver fatalities between 1982 and 1996 – and speeds today are no higher than they were then.

Steps need to be taken to prevent a repeat of the kind of pack racing seen at Las Vegas. This may be acceptable for slower, fully-enclosed cars like NASCARs, but is surely a risk too far for IndyCar racing.

It’s significant that since the crash former F1 driver Jean Alesi has said he still intends to participate in next year’s Indianapolis 500. He said: “What happened at Las Vegas can’t happen in Indy: the banking there is negligible and most of all you never take it flat out except in qualifying.”

Some drivers had raised concerns about the potential for such an accident before the race. On Monday IndyCar had the first of what surely will be many meetings with drivers to avoid a repeat of Las Vegas.

Las Vegas remains on the provisional 2012 IndyCar schedule but series CEO Randy Bernard said recently it was “premature” to decide if IndyCar would return there.

The safety improvements already planned for the 2012 car are a step in the right direction. However more may now need to be done.

Increasing the strength of the cars by installing cockpit covers would be unpopular move for some. But aesthetics cannot take priority over driver safety.

IndyCar will have to learn difficult lessons and take tough decisions in the months ahead.

Franchitti, who became IndyCar champion for the fourth time following the abandoned race, spoke for many when he said yesterday: “I love the fact that the IndyCar series is the mix of all the disciplines and to win the championship, you’ve got to be strong at all of them.

“So we’ve got to be on ovals, and it’s got to be safe. It’s got to be a lot safer.”

Wheldon fund and auction

A trust fund has been established for Dan Wheldon’s family. Contributions can be made here:

Fifth Third Private Bank
Attn: Dan Wheldon Family Trust
251 North Illinois St.
Suite 1000
Indianapolis, IN 46204

There is also an online auction to raise money for the trust fund:

Marco Simoncelli

The motor racing community is also mourning the death of Moto GP rider Marco Simoncelli, who died in a crash at Sepang International Circuit on Sunday.

At this tragic time, my thoughts are with the families and friends of both Wheldon and Simoncelli.

Tragedy at Las Vegas

Images ?? IndyCar

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95 comments on Rethinking oval racing for IndyCar after Las Vegas

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  1. Fer no.65 (@fer-no65) said on 26th October 2011, 21:49

    It’s not surprising this kind of thing happen in oval racing, specially Indycar.

    What it is surprising is that it doesn’t happen every weekend or so.

    With such speeds, and no chance to avoid a car spinning in the middle of the track, this could happen much more frequently, sadly.

    They’ll have to reduce the average speed if they want to stick with ovals, imo.

    • montreal95 (@montreal95) said on 26th October 2011, 22:47

      The average speed had nothing to do with the crash. The pack racing at those speeds is the problem. It was too easy to drive and drivers couldn’t differentiate themselves from one another. Consequently what needs to be done is that either Indycar stops racing the easy flat 1.5 mile ovals or they change the cars to give them more horsepower and less downforce so they won’t be flat any more.

      Great article Keith!

    • BasCB (@bascb) said on 27th October 2011, 10:10

      I just read an interesting piece with Zanardi offering his opinion on the matter. About the speed:

      “As I often say, it’s not speed the cause of such a crash. If anything, it could be an aggravating factor,”

      , he goes on to say he thinks its a problem the cars have too much downforce now, making it too easy to just go full throttle (and makes for less spread in the field for differences in setup and driver skill).

      I found this a quite striking comment as well

      “At Las Vegas it wasn’t a race between drivers anymore. It was a pack of cars moving all together, bunched up with no chance of breaking off. Now, when you race for five minutes with your rival right next to your side, at the point that you notice if his sponsor stickers are not straight, when it’s too easy do drive even on the outside line…
      “At that point it’s like driving with a tutor. An obscenely idiotic thing, because then you distract yourself for not concentrating enough. After a while, even if you are travelling at 340 km/h, you don’t realise it anymore.”

      Reminds me of the times we saw Kimi “fall asleep” and lose the car when leading without anyone challenging them (and numerous other drivers as well).

  2. strunk27 (@strunk27) said on 26th October 2011, 22:09

    Great article.

    Being from Indiana I have the privilege to attend the Indianapolis 500 each year and the Kentucky 300 the past two races. The enthusiasm Dan showed for the Indianapolis 500 and racing in general was inspiring. He was a true gift to indycar, and will be missed.

    That said, I don’t think the answer is leaving ovals completely. I feel like the biggest problem was the high level of banking. Having attended Kentucky this year, another 1.5 mile oval I can say that there was never that kind of pack racing. There was close racing for sure (the last 25 laps were spectacular) but it never seemed overly dangerous. The speeds never were that high either and I personally feel as though speeds should only break 210 at Indianapolis. Changes definitely will be needed within the coming months.

    One thing is certain though that dan wheldon will be deeply missed. He was a fan favorite because of how talented he was but also because he was such a nice guy. It will be a emotional Indianapolis 500 next year for sure, with remembering dan as the focus.

  3. AndrewTanner (@andrewtanner) said on 26th October 2011, 22:11

    I’m not a big follower of Indy at all, but it seems to me that they ought to evaluate what sort of ovals they should be using and ensuring that they stick to their own guidelines when it comes to the number of cars on track.

    • ivz (@ivz) said on 27th October 2011, 3:53

      Road tracks are much safer! These cars are much too fast and too open to make it safe.
      I just don’t get the ovals for cars with downforce, no breaking, no accelerating, all they do is slipstream each other?

  4. f1geordie (@f1geordie) said on 26th October 2011, 22:22

    Brilliant article, Keith, you can tell a lot of work has gone into it. RIP Dan.

    • SparkyJ23 (@sparkyj23) said on 27th October 2011, 11:27

      Indeed a good piece of writing their Keith.

      The only thing i took away was the fact that 3 cars were contacted from directly behind and all 3 cars that hit them them took off, surely the default result of hitting the car in front shouldn’t be going airbourne?

  5. Dougy_D (@dougy_d) said on 26th October 2011, 22:27

    Great article. Nicely thought out.

    I think Indycar needs to adapt and change but retain it’s character. Indycar is oval racing, just like F1 is circuit racing! Just like F1 though, they need to adapt and make these ovals safer! Less banking, less speed and safer cars. We can only hope Dan’s tragic death was not in vain but will trigger the same kind of safety campaign as F1′s own after Ayrton death back in 1994.

    RIP Dan!

  6. Phil T (@phil-t) said on 26th October 2011, 22:34

    Its the catch fencing, also apparently known as the Indycar Grater, should be the first priority, surely. I do not know what the solution is, but even if it means drastic changes to the circuits, it all has to go, now.

  7. AlonsoWDC (@alonsowdc) said on 26th October 2011, 22:43

    Yes, the grater needs to be improved.

    Oval tracks for AOW – Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Phoenix, Loudon, Richmond, Iowa, Twin Ring Motegi. These tracks are acceptable to me. Chicago or Miami if the new car coming out next generation (2012) reduces the affinity for cars to get air for the slightest of slights.

    I hope the series doesn’t overreact and eliminate oval racing at all. It can’t do that without being hypocritical anyway, because the month of May isn’t going anywhere ever.

    But (as an American pining for the ever older days of AOW being significant in any way in the larger picture) that’s because my definition of AOW is something like 60-65/35-40% road course/ovals, with there being more road circuits than street circuits.

  8. kapow32 (@kapow32) said on 26th October 2011, 22:44

    http://msn.foxsports.com/motor/story/IndyCar-Series-must-make-safety-perception-changes-after-Dan-Wheldon-tragedy-102411

    I think Davey is right here about the catch fencing, the poles just destroy cars. The way Wheldons car went into the fence reminded a lot of Jeff Krosnoffs fatal crash, which happened at Toronto, a street course. I think some kind of cockpit protection is needed as well. Paul Tracy said that Pippa Manns car went through his cockpit area and broke his steering wheel, he also tweeted a picture of his helmet which had a tire mark across the visor, from Manns car as well.

    I think increasing power and decreasing downforce on ovals would be good for the sporting aspect as much as the safety aspect, I never liked the pack racing anyhow

    • montreal95 (@montreal95) said on 26th October 2011, 22:58

      +1

      Pack racing is unnatural. If Dario or Tony cannot differentiate themselves from the likes of Mann or Kimball, then something is surely wrong(no disrespect to those two, I could’ve chosen anyone who doesn’t belong to the top echelon of Indy drivers). Hope next year’s car is safer and that Indycar implements all the neccesary changes to catch fencing, cars and does a thorough study about what ovals are suitable.

  9. F1Yankee (@f1yankee) said on 26th October 2011, 22:53

    even nascar drivers have stated the obvious:
    “if you want to prevent ‘the big one’ then you must reduce the banking”

    save the velodromes for bicycles. these 1.5 mile ovals promote frequent and huge crashes, which on any oval brings the action to a complete stop for 15 minutes. the banking simultaneously enables higher energy levels and leaves drivers with nowhere to go. there can only be 1 result from running around a bowl at full throttle. the giant ovals – indianapolis with its straights, daytona and talladega with their sheer-cliff banking) have this effect mitigated somewhat due to their massive size.

    1.5 mile soup bowls set the stage for a demolition derby, and people that enjoy it are not race fans.

    • Mike (@mike) said on 27th October 2011, 2:53

      Ok, so you get rid of the dangerous tracks.

      Done.

      Then what? These tracks are more likely to cause a serious incident. But the results of a serious incident won’t necessarily be better on any other track.

      I don’t watch Indycar, but from what I can see it is not that uncommon that a car will fly into the fencing. With open top cars. I don’t see how this can ever be safe.

  10. BROOKSY007 (@brooksy007) said on 26th October 2011, 22:55

    I’ve always wanted f1 to have one oval race in its season, just as a comparison to be able to see the differences. Now I’m not so sure…

    I’ve only really been into motorsports for the last 12 years, so I missed the very dangerous and sad days, so I’ve always enjoyed a good crash – knowing some billionaire has to pay for it! But after watching live the fatal incidences of both wheldon and simocelli more has to be done to prevent these tragic events. who really cares if the canopy is fully or semi-enclosed, or if bike riders wear additional saftey gear – simoceli’s crash was very unusual and I know that not much more could have been done in terms of safety, but if they had some sort of hans device his helmet may not have come off.

  11. Enigma (@enigma) said on 26th October 2011, 23:07

    Fantastic article, Keith.

  12. mrgrieves (@mrgrieves) said on 26th October 2011, 23:09

    I have never been lucky enough to be at a oval race but speeds of 220MPH+ is crazy. Surely they could cut that down to around 180 and that won make to much difference to the show.

    I thought since Mike Conways crash that the fence above the barriers were very dangerous and that they should be replaced with something that doesnt cause massive damage to car and driver .

    What changes does the new car make so that the chance of flying over other cars is reduced?

  13. MVEilenstein (@mveilenstein) said on 26th October 2011, 23:19

    The scale of the accident and its terrible consequences has raised questions over the viability of open-wheel cars racing on ovals.

    Perhaps in mainstream and tabloid press. No real Indycar fan or journalist would seriously suggest abandoning oval racing.

    The solution is simple: more horsepower, less downforce, less grip. When drivers are forced to drive (not just steer), pack racing will cease to exist.

    We do not need radical solutions to simple problems.

    • AMG Fan (@amg-fan) said on 27th October 2011, 0:09

      I agree with MVEilenstein, if horsepower was increased and there was a reduction in downforce, it would force the drivers to lift off the throttle and possibly brake for corners. It would allow for differentiation in speeds of cars; with different entry corner speeds, braking, exit corner speeds etc. Thus ending not only pack racing, but a situation where drivers just run side-by-side for endless laps and cannot escape one another.

      IndyCar races on 1.5 mile ovals are utterly tedious, it’s like NASCAR restrictor plate racing; there is nothing interesting in watching a bunch of cars running wide open on the throttle for a whole race. Not only would more powerful cars with less downforce and grip be safer, the racing would be far more varied and interesting.

      The boring side-by-side racing has existed since IRL was formed, and the safety of the track or number of cars had nothing to do with the Las Vegas crash – as some have suggested. There have been multiple car pile ups with far fewer cars.

      On a side note, CART had an aero system called the Handford Device, it allowed the cars to slingshot and get separated.

      • TimG (@timg) said on 27th October 2011, 14:25

        On a side note, CART had an aero system called the Handford Device, it allowed the cars to slingshot and get separated.

        My recollection was that the Handford device – a flat plate across the back of the rear wing to reduce downforce and increase drag on superspeedways – increased overtaking because it made for a bigger slipstream. It was used in the late 1990s but was ditched several years before CART merged with the IRL.

    • Mike (@mike) said on 27th October 2011, 2:55

      More horsepower? More? Are you serious?

      What concerns me is that with the cars going even faster, the results are likely to be even worse.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 27th October 2011, 7:51

      @MVEilenstein Those involved in motor racing cannot, as you suggest, behave as if they exist in a vacuum, free from outside scrutiny.

      The mainstream coverage of the crash ran the gamut from restrained and informed to hysterical and ghoulish. We shouldn’t ignore the former because of the latter.

      You may not like it, you may not agree with it, but it would be irresponsible to ignore it.

  14. Satchel_Charge said on 26th October 2011, 23:36

    IMO cutting out all oval tracks is best. Let’s see more real racetracks :)

    • MVEilenstein (@mveilenstein) said on 27th October 2011, 0:20

      Are you joking?

      • Satchel_Charge said on 27th October 2011, 0:26

        No. Although I’m not an ICR fan (or a fan of anything that happens on an asphalt speedway, for that matter) so perhaps commenting at all on this story is foolish of me.

        • MVEilenstein (@mveilenstein) said on 27th October 2011, 0:38

          Oval track racing has a long, rich heritage in the US and many other countries. Doing away with it isn’t really an option.

          • Satchel_Charge said on 27th October 2011, 0:47

            It’s wishful thinking, I know, and I am definitely willing to respect the history behind some of these tracks. What I have trouble with is the basic philosophy of racing on an oval track when real circuits (as I say it :P ) are so much more exciting for everyone involved (including the cars, from a viewpoint of the stress they receive via an undulating track!) If an oval is covered in snow or ice or dirt, or mud…… I can definitely begin seeing the appeal. But I simply cannot get behind an asphalt oval.

          • Satchel_Charge said on 27th October 2011, 0:49

            I should also mention that I do concede ovals are better for a grandstand audience but anything more than that….

          • javlinsharp (@javlinsharp) said on 27th October 2011, 15:42

            Oval Tracks will never exit the US. The vast majority of race facilities in the US are, indeed, ovals. You may not like them but thank heaven you dont make the decision.

            Done properly, an oval track is just as safe(or unsafe) as a circuit course.

            Though I have not crunched all the numbers available at the data source below, it looks like there is a full distribution of fatalities on every genre of racing, OW, CW, Oval, and Circuit racing. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_racing_drivers_who_died_in_racing_crashes#B

            Driving fast is dangerous, at 220, 180 and even 40 mph, people die. Steps can be taken to reduce, but the safest way to use any motorvehicle is at very low speed.

            Racers are not blind to these risks, and they choose them, just as we all do when we engage in skiing, backpacking, kayaking skydiving, mt biking, or basically anything that doesnt involve the sofa and the TV remote.

  15. Icthyes (@icthyes) said on 26th October 2011, 23:40

    Unfortunately it looks like it was every worst possible contributing factor rolled into one: the speed, the closeness, the size of the field, the catch fencing that destroyed Dan’s car…

    The new car is a massive step in the right direction. But the kind of racing at Las Vegas can’t be allowed in IndyCar again. The catch fencing has to be replaced too, maybe with the kind of shielding seen at hockey games.

    IndyCar wouldn’t be IndyCar without the ovals. Squaring this principle with keeping the drivers safe is their goal now.

    • Chops (@chops) said on 27th October 2011, 1:52

      I was just thinking the same thing about the ice-hockey style shielding. Would be better to have a belt like go-karting than a ‘grater’.

      • javlinsharp (@javlinsharp) said on 27th October 2011, 15:50

        Plexiglass would probably not solve it. Even in Ice Hockey, panels have shattered at the force of a puck (famously into the lap of Wayne Gretzky’s wife on one occasion); Racecar energy levels would moot this point.

        There is one other clear material I know of called Gorilla Glass by which actual glass is strengthened via a chemical process. However, the costs of wrapping a 1.5 mile racetrack would disqualify the solution.

        The best I can think of is to cover the “grater” with thinner clear panels. Strength is taken from the cables, while friction is reduced by the panels. Now you just have to hope the panels dont break into pointy ended spears to stab the drivers and spectators.

        • damonsmedley (@damonsmedley) said on 29th October 2011, 6:08

          There must be something strong enough? Even if it has to be a metre thick. They need something to replace the catch-fencing because that’s the most dangerous thing about IndyCar racing, in my opinion.

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