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

  1. MVEilenstein (@mveilenstein) said on 26th October 2011, 23:44

    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.

    I hate to disagree with you, Keith, but there was little pack racing at Kentucky compared to what we saw at Las Vegas. Carpenter and Franchitti actually broke away from the rest of the field and dueled to an exciting finish. Frankly, it was pretty boring except for the last few laps.

  2. ajokay (@ajokay) said on 27th October 2011, 0:05

    Seems to me as if they just need to build the walls a lot higher. Hitting that catchment fencing is like rubbing your face across a cheese grater at 225mph.

  3. Ed d'Agliano-Luna said on 27th October 2011, 1:53

    Think of this ludicrous stupidity of a scenario…The old Monza track with modern F1 power, suspension and down force, and the cheese grater catch fencing on the banked part of the oval. Irresponsible inhuman insanity! It would never happen. Yet in Indycar…

  4. Mahir C said on 27th October 2011, 1:56

    Not all ovals are the same. For me the ovals cars go flat out the whole lap at high speeds(210+ mph) have to go. Also as some others said, downforce should be reduced, but by how much we dont know. The ovals should allow some sort of side by side racing, otherwise all you ever going to see is a train rather than a pack.

    What is truly scary is that more drivers could have died at that accident. I believe there were 3 or 4 drivers who hit catch fence, including Will Power. They could have died as well if they hit it cockpit first like Wheldon did. Also check the ABC commentary on Youtube clips, presenters were like ‘here we go” and seemed not at all surprised that something like that happened

  5. wasiF1 (@wasif1) said on 27th October 2011, 2:02

    I don’t watch Indy but one thing always concerned me is the number of cars, I guess 28 is way too much given the type of motorsports they do.in a 2.5 km race track 20 cars should be a safe number.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 27th October 2011, 7:56

      @wasiF1 As I alluded to in the article, I have doubts about this. Wheldon was running in 24th place when the crash started. Did the ten cars behind him make any difference to what happened?

      • wasiF1 (@wasif1) said on 27th October 2011, 12:53

        @KeithCollantine No it didn’t what if things were different? But I always feel with the speed & the length of the track there should be a limited number of cars that should participate. F1 these days don’t allow more then 24 cars because of safety issue & secondly if the worst to happen it will be tough to give medical assistance to 24 drivers.

        • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 27th October 2011, 13:24

          @wasiF1 Actually the limit in F1 is 26.

        • TimG (@timg) said on 27th October 2011, 14:33

          The field for the Indy 500 is traditionally 33 cars – which is partly why F1 always looked so insignificant and out of proportion with its surroundings when it raced at the Brickyard.

          The grid size for F1 is determined more by the smaller, traditional circuits like Monaco – where there isn’t physically enough room in the pitlane for more teams – than the longer or more modern circuits.

          Spa, for example, often has 60 starters for its annual 24 hour GT race so could easily accommodate more than 26 F1 cars.

  6. Kris H. said on 27th October 2011, 2:55

    Great article – I certainly agree it was a combination of factors – but in my opinion, running at 1.5 mile ovals automatically increases the risk of something like this happening by about a factor of 3 or 4, due to the shape of the track and the banking. As someone else said, they banned the Monza banking eons ago.

    But the other ovals need to stay. The street and road races in this series are painfully boring – they’ve gotten progressively worse over the years and the “no inside line under braking” rule is the most ridiculous rule I’ve ever heard of. To be honest, the oval racing this year had more excitement than anything I saw on the road/street races.

    • MVEilenstein (@mveilenstein) said on 27th October 2011, 6:18

      Remove the 1.5 mile tracks, and what’s left? Milwaukee is DOA. Phoenix will never happen again. Loudon is still on shaky ground.

    • TimG (@timg) said on 27th October 2011, 14:36

      running at 1.5 mile ovals automatically increases the risk of something like this happening by about a factor of 3 or 4, due to the shape of the track and the banking.

      Les Vegas has a relatively high degree of banking – but not all do. Other 1.5 mile ovals are much flatter, which makes them more a test of driver skill. Loudon, in New Hampshire, has has a much lower degree of banking, if I remember correctly.

  7. TED BELL said on 27th October 2011, 4:01

    The solution is in place, the DW12 race chassis. Do nothing else at this time.

    Avoid the mistake made by Formula One because of the Senna incident. The massive change due to his death ruined many of the great race tracks with ridiculous chicanes. The cars then were upgraded to reflect what was thought to them becoming safer. The sum of the whole situation was to drastically change what F1 was and morph it into something at the time was believed to be safer for all involved in F1. Sure no one has died in Grand Prix racing since, but the risk, challenge and rewards of Formula One is lesser for the over reaction that came from the Senna incident.

    Dealing with this current situation in INDYCAR racing is as this well written article by Mr. Collantine clearly states that all avenues pertaining to what happened to Dan Wheldon are being discussed, analized and the process of determining what should be done is continuing to unfold. Allow those in the know to solve this matter in a timely manor which when looking to the future will make the sport evolve and not become the mess that F1 became from overeacting.

    In my mind I question how racing on a high banked 1.5 mile track at current racing speed even has a solution. There is no obvious method to make this last generation of cars, the number of them racing at he same time together and the incredible speed all combine and not face another disaster.

    INDYCAR must be patient with its decision on how to respond to its own future. The first step is already in place the DW12. Test it , perfect it and then race it. The new season is still far enough away to get down to the business of getting this new platform ready. Put the best drivers from the series in it and listen to what they think. Test it at all of the various venues that make INDYCAR what it is. In the end they might say we simply can’t go back to another Vegas type track.

    INDYCAR is a series that races on just about all types of race tracks, maybe some are no longer feasable even in the light of a big dollar pay day.

    I hope they don’t overeact, learn from the mistake Formula One made.

  8. matt90 (@matt90) said on 27th October 2011, 4:18

    Keith, admittedly as a person who knows very little about Indycar, congratulations on what I see as a very clear and well-balanced article. It is a testament to the quality of the site that you are able to provide such an article in the midst of preparations for an inaugural GP.

    I barely bother searching for motorsport info in general away from this site any more, and this is a perfect example of why.

    Whatever the reasons behind Dan being involved (I assume it was the best career choice available to him at the time), that he played such a pivotal role in developing what will hopefully prove to be a significantly safer Indycar is incredibly fitting. It is a tragedy that he didn’t get to be among the first on the grid to race it properly, but it is very much ‘right’ that he has helped shape it.

    Once more, RIP Dan and Marco

  9. GeeMac (@geemac) said on 27th October 2011, 6:40

    “The first 21 cars were still covered by two seconds after seven laps.”

    Wow.

    “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.”

    Double wow.

    I know hindsight is an exact science, but when you see numbers like that, the tragedy we all witnessed seems inevitable. You can’t expect 34 racing drivers, even at the top level of oval racing, to be able to avoid making contact with each other at speeds of 340 kp/h when there is so little difference in performance between the cars.

  10. W-K (@w-k) said on 27th October 2011, 7:56

    If ovals are to continue then I think the following should all be implemented:

    1. Reduce the banking angle, so that they have to slow and steer round the corners
    2. Reduce downforce to assist 1.
    3. Move the posts holding the catch fencing back, like basket ball posts, with the fence hung from a very high rail.
    4. Put some verticle slack into the fences so that it acts like a deformable front end to reduce speed more gradually.

    • W-K (@w-k) said on 27th October 2011, 7:59

      Whoops forgot 5.
      5. Reduce the field in line with indianapolis, which is 33 cars/2.5 miles. Therefore cars on 1.5 mile oval would be 33 * 1.5 / 2.5 = 20 cars (19.8 rounded)

  11. Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 27th October 2011, 8:01

    Thanks @f1geordie, @Dougy_D, @matt90, @enigma and everyone else for the positive feedback on this article.

  12. ECWDanSelby (@ecwdanselby) said on 27th October 2011, 10:25

    I’ve been trying to get in to Indycar for the past season or two. I was watching the extremely close finish the race before where Carpenter picked up the narrow victory from Franchitti. Great stuff. Me and a friend eagerly awaited the series finalé (well, me more so – I was trying to get my friend in to it, and tbh, he was quite looking forward to it after I showed him Carpenter’s win!). Then, we had this awful crash.

    Being someone that loves studying tracks and track evolution, I couldn’t help but stop and think about ways to improve oval safety.

    I come up with two methods which i’m more than happy for people to shoot down/discuss/pick holes in, because I don’t claim to be a scientist by any means:

    1) Run off: Is there not a possibility of installing run-off on ovals? Grandstands could be significantly elevated and moved back, so you still have the ‘stadium’ effect that American racing is known for. Of course, the downside to this is the costs… I’m sure Abu Dhabi did something like this at the end of the backstraight.

    2) Magnetic run-off strips. Ok. Here’s the idea (and like I said, feel free to disect issues in this). The more I thought about it, I couldn’t help but feel that magnetism could be a way of scrubbing off speed before impact. Aslong as the floors of the cars are predominantly metal, could there not be an argument for placing strong magnetic strips down before the barriers? This would go hand-in-hand with my elevated grandstand/run-off idea. Of course, I don’t expect the cars to come to an immediate standstill as that’s probably just not physically possible coming to a halt from 220mph+, but what if it even scrubbed off 1/4 of the speed? It could be the difference between an injury and a fatality.

    I could be a mile off here, but i’d like to hear people’s ideas.

    Cheers

    • BasCB (@bascb) said on 27th October 2011, 10:57

      @ECWdanselby, I have been watching CART in the ’90s and was getting back into it since last year. I think the series has a lot of potential, but theres quite a bit to be improved.

      I think the first point you mentioned would really fall at the cost thing you mentioned, as it would mean a lot of work for all the ovals, and possibly reduce capacities. Also, with cars going up in the air, it might have had them hitting the grandstands floor/construction, making for worse damage, I think.

      Not sure about weather the magnets would work, I do not really think there is that much metal in those cars floor and it would have te be a really powerfull magnet to help slow them. Interesting idea though.

    • BasCB (@bascb) said on 27th October 2011, 10:59

      Thinking on, maybe having a strip covered in the higly abrasive surface, like they have on the Paul ricard run-off in the last meter from the wall might help slow them down a bit more?

      It still does not cover getting airborne though (but the DW12 car might do enough to stop most of that already).

      • ECWDanSelby (@ecwdanselby) said on 27th October 2011, 11:54

        Thanks for the feedback @BasCB

        The run-off material at Paul Ricard could definitely help.

        Oh most definitely – The magnet would have to be extremely strong. But i’m sure there’s certain industries that rely heavily on magnetism. I’d be surprised if magnetism hadn’t evolved enough to do something to slow speeds down. Like I said, I certainly don’t expect the car to come to a standstill (which, in itself, would be just as dangerous anyway, probably), but i’d imagine it could slow the car down somewhat before impact.

        I’m going to try and do a bit of light research in to magnetism. If only I had all the bits to do a scaled down (massively, scaled down..) example!

  13. Excellent article. Has to be said though that the catch fencing did it’s job – it caught the car and kept them all within the confines of the track, but yes a redesign could help as clearly the pillars within the fencing are what caused the issues. It could have been much worse had the cars broken through the fencing however. It’s very very sad indeed that anybody had to lose their life, however it would have been terrible if spectators had also been hurt.

  14. davidwhite (@davidwhite) said on 27th October 2011, 12:34

    Great article Keith – clearly lots of thought has gone into this.

    Personally i’ve never seen the appeal of oval tracks but maybe i’m just not getting something? That said, I’ve only ever seen oval racing on TV – maybe i’d appreciate it more watching it at the track itself….

  15. KeeleyObsessed (@keeleyobsessed) said on 27th October 2011, 12:58

    I hate to say it, but I really think the people who organised the race were at fault, much like the article says. 34 cars racing around a 25 second lap.. on average that’s a maximum of 0.7 seconds between each car, and if it’s more than 0.7 between two cars, then there’s 3 or 4 bunched right up. A crash was inevitable.

    Instead of getting rid of oval racing altogether (which I understand would be a shame, I’d love to see an oval race live when I find the money to go to the US) why don’t they put in run-off areas so the cars have a chance of losing more speed before hitting the barriers?

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