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. John Edwards said on 27th October 2011, 13:22

    Seems to me, that enclosing the rear wheels will make the difference.

    HAD Whledon had that crash in a 2012 car he would have smashed teh front of the car up, he may have got a lsparained ankle, but that would be as much as would have happened.

    Maybe preventing the “flat out” racing may be the answer to spread the field out.

    However as an F1, the appeal of Indycar is the broad range of tracks and styles of racing, to bin ovals would be a shame.

    Indy is a better test of a drivers skill range than F1. In F1 there are two types of track, Monaco and everything else.

  2. Flying Lobster 27 said on 27th October 2011, 13:28

    Brilliant article, Keith, which I agree with fully.
    My initial reaction to the crash was that people focusing on the fact that there were too many cars out there were missing an important point: the car taking off high enough to hit the catch fence in the first place was my big worry. Of course, all factors played their role: the banking induced the pack racing that induced the large pile-up, but take away a dozen cars from that crash and just look at what happened to Wheldon, and you’ve got a carbon copy of something that has been happening and injuring drivers for years (Briscoe 05 or Bräck at Texas before that).
    I even read that Tony Renna in 2003 died after going airborne into the fence during a spin on his own during a private test at Indy, so the full dangerousness of these cars taking off has been known for nearly a decade! :O

  3. StefMeister said on 27th October 2011, 13:42

    I think that one other problem Indycar have right now is that the slower/flatter oval’s people agree are fine to run on don’t draw a crowd which is why most of them have been dropped.

    Milwaukee & New Hampshire came back on the schedule this year & both put on a good race (Ignoring the mess at the end of New Hampshire), However the crowd at both was quite poor. The 1.5m, High banked Texas oval has consistently drawn a good crowd & been one of the best promoted races thanks to circuit owner Eddie Gossage & The Iowa oval is much the same & is usually a sell out.

    I see a lot of people saying ‘slow the cars down’, I don’t think thats the answer as getting them to run slower would just make the cars easier to drive flat out all the way round on all ovals & lead to more pack style racing.

    In its worth remembering that it was when the IRL dropped the CART formula & went with lower powered cars & high downforce that we started to see the pack racing. CART/ChampCar ran with more power & less downforce on big ovals & produced some great racing without the big, close packs.
    ChampCar tried the IRL formula at the German EuroSpeedway oval in 2003 & ran with less turbo boost & a higher downforce package & the racing was more similar to the IRL. Samw is true when ChampCar ran at Las Vegas speedway in 2004.

    The best way to disband the pack racing is to get them lifting in the corners, The answer to this is more power & less downforce to force the drivers to have to drive the cars again like in the CART days (As Zanardi, Tracy & other Ex-CART drivers have said).

    F1 fans who don’t watch/know much about Indycar racing may not get oval racing, However those of us who are Indycar fans do get & most enjoy this style of racing so don’t want to see oval’s dropped completely.

  4. Dizzy said on 27th October 2011, 15:11

    The speed they were going WAS NOT the problem, Dan would still have been killed had they been doing 100mph less. The thing that killed Dan was that after going airborn the car rotated & went into the fence/fence post at the worst possible angle.
    Comparing to F1, Had Webber’s car rotated to the right more when he flew over Kovalainen’s Lotus at Valencia last year, He could well have hit the fence at the same angle Dan did & would not have walked away.

    I recall an F3000 crash many years back at Magny-Course where a driver died having flew over another car (at around 130mph) & had his head strike a barrier & we were lucky the same didn’t happen to EJ Viso when he flew through the air & landed on a wall/smashed through an advertising scaffhold during the GP2 race there in 2007.

    As to why Indycar’s take off so frequently, In many cases its been wheel to wheel contact & that will nearly always get you airborn. However another issue which has caused the cars to fly higher & take off despite no contact is the ground effects the cars run.
    The floors of those cars are designed to produce a limited form of Ground effects. As many will know this basically creates a low pressure point which sucks the car to the ground.

    The problem with this is that if additional air gets under the car & into the tunnels, Especially at a certain angle, the car will start to generate lift. Its why the Mercedes kept taking off at Le Mans back in ’99, Under certain conditions the ground effect generated at the front turns into lift. Its something which has been an issue in Sports prototypes for decades.

    Something which could help to stop them taking off is to go the F1 route & ban ground effects & get them to run a flat floor which has to be a set height off the ground mandated via the use of a plank.
    Problem then of cource is that aero would become more important which would make racing close with other cars & therefore overtaking difficult as we see in F1.

    What indycar should do to remove the so called pack racing is radically reduce downforce & give them at least 850bhp. this will force them to have to lift in the corners (get the aero package right & even the short high banked ovals will be fine).
    Its the low power, high downforce system indycar has been running since 97-98 which allows them to run easily full throttle the entire way round which has created the pack racing, lowering speeds woudn’t help to eliminate pack racing, it would actually make it worse.

  5. Joey-Poey (@joey-poey) said on 27th October 2011, 16:52

    I agree with Franchitti. Part of what has made Indy Car special for many decades now has been the variety of tracks it races on and to knee jerk and remove ovals completely just can’t happen. Especially when not every oval is as dangerous as the Vegas situation. Yes, they do need to consider removing some (though the Indy 500 is understandably not an option to ever be removed), but I think the points you made as to why this incident happened can be addressed without neutering the series.

  6. chi-tom (@chi-tom) said on 27th October 2011, 17:10

    Indycar has needed changes in their Race Administrators for some time. The starts/re-starts are ridiculous, the cars are nowhere lined up, and the chaos potential is woefully high. This would never be allowed in NASCAR or F1 where races are properly run. And the quality of driving is uneven and dangerous racing and incidents are not fairly and consistently dealt with, which begats more of the same.

    Did anyone see the dreadful Toronto Indycar race this year where so much of the driving was sloppy, dangerous (numerous avoidable accidents) and went unpunished? The whole bunch of drivers should have been grabbed by the back of the neck, sat down and given the big lecture on shape up or sit out for a while.

    As for the Vegas tragedy, Randy Bernard effectively killed Dan Wheldon putting him at the back of a too large field filled with under-schooled drivers who lacked proper car craft. Given the 5 million to Wheldon’s family if you’ve got any integrity Randy.

    • MVEilenstein (@mveilenstein) said on 27th October 2011, 17:21

      You do understand that there is no $5 million pile of money sitting in a bank, don’t you? It’s an insurance policy that the series took out, payable only when certain conditions are met – in this case, Dan Wheldon winning the race.

      To suggest or even imply that Wheldon died because he was racing for the $5 million is an insult to his honor. Wheldon would have raced just as hard for a case of beer.

    • TimG (@timg) said on 27th October 2011, 19:00

      As for the Vegas tragedy, Randy Bernard effectively killed Dan Wheldon putting him at the back of a too large field filled with under-schooled drivers who lacked proper car craft.

      As set out in the article, the drivers in the Las Vegas field had an average of 90 race starts between them, only two had less than 10 Indycar starts under their belt and they had previous oval experience – hardly under-schooled.

      I think it’s slightly insulting to suggest that the prospect of a $5m prize for winning (it was actually $2.5m – the money was to be shared between Wheldon and randomly selected fan) made Dan Wheldon take risks he wouldn’t have taken otherwise. Prize money is a common feature of motor racing and rarely does the prospect of winning money turn professional racing drivers into irresponsible idiots who are prepared to take risks with their own lives.

      Wheldon made his name as an expert on ovals, where passing is considerably easier than on road courses, and knew as well as anyone that it’s the last lap that counts, not the first.

      Wheldon was, after all, the driver who won this year’s Indy 500 after going into the last corner of the last lap in second place…

  7. This is a well done article, well-researched. Seeing the video of Franchittis accident is kind of sickening now, to think of how the announcers always practically laugh that stuff off and then explain how incredibly safe modern cars are. This rationalization, that the cars are amazingly safe and safe enough to allay fears of death, is out the window.

    This accident proved that Wheldon’s death was not a freak result of a freak accident. Several cars had their monocoques cracked like eggs such that massive fuel fireballs erupted. When is the last time we saw single car explode in a fuel fire in a major racing series? Wheldon’s car had it’s entire upper safety structure sheared off. The only freak nature of this accident was the lack of futher major injuries, besides Power’s fractured back and Mann’s badly damaged hand.

    People who are saying that the new car would have saved Wheldon are frankly thnking wishfully or not being serious, unless they happen to know that those cars have been tested to withstand the forces that destroyed several of them and peeled one of them open like a can of sardines. I doubt it. But I think we should all look forward to, and demand, that IRL let us know if that is actually the case, rather than just assuming .

    I don’t know what IRL will do, but I think smart money says they never visit places like Vegas and Texas again. They will stay at Indy, obviously. And Homestead, Richmond, and Milwaukee and other flattish tracks.

    One thing about Keith’s general take that this was inevitable given the track design and cars and that the there is no blame to assign here to drivers. In F1, if you touch another car and cause an accident, or not, you are in the wrong, and you pay a price. In IRL, if you touch a car, even through rank negligence, and case a catastrophic pile-up, well that’s racing. Maybe IRL should think about that. IRL is very aggressive about blocking and contact on road courses, but ironically, on an oval, most anything goes.

    • Dizzy said on 28th October 2011, 8:33

      The fire was not because of cracked chassis or fuel, they were flash fires from oil & are not a big issue.

      In order to absorb the impact from rearward impact’s the gearboxes are designed as part of the rear impact structure. Upon impact they are crushed which releases the gearbox oil & that briefly ignites but very quickly burns itself out.

      The actual damage to most of the cars was actully not that bad considering the circumstances & from what I understand all but Wheldon’s could have been repaired & run again had there been another race to run.
      The damage to Wheldon’s car was fairly unusual & was simply down to the way it hit the catch-fence post. Also worth pointing out that the impact which caused Dan’s injury almost certainly occured before the roll bar structure was torn off.

      When saying the new car woudn’t have prevented his death I think your ignoring the fact that the rear end of the new car has been designed to prevent cars from been able to take off over one another. Had they been driving the 2012 car at Ls vegas its highly likely Dan’s car never would have been launched over the top of the car he hit & he’d have therefore not been in a position to hit the catch-fence post.

      Let us not also forget that the old & new car’s were both designed by Dallara (Who design many other open wheel & sportscars) & both have to meet FIA safety standard’s.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 28th October 2011, 8:45

      I wouldn’t pre-judge how the current car performed or how the future car might have performed in the crash until the results of the investigation are known.

  8. Fixy (@fixy) said on 28th October 2011, 14:49

    Very good analysis. I have little experience with oval racing, but I agree with this.

  9. Kevin said on 8th April 2012, 5:18

    do what nascar does put a restrictor plate on them

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