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INDYCAR: Blow From Fence Post Killed Wheldon

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, December 15 2011

After the crash which killed Dan Wheldon, IndyCar drivers took five tribute laps. The series announced findings of an investigation of the crash on Thursday.

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

INDYCAR  on Thursday released the findings of its investigation into the wreck that took the life of driver Dan Wheldon at Las Vegas Motor Speedway 11 laps into the final race of the 2011 season.

Those findings include the conclusion that a catch fence support pole hit by Wheldon’s airborne car “intruded” into the driver compartment. That the pole struck Wheldon in the head and produced “non-survivable” injuries.

The wreck, which involved 15 of the 34 cars in the starting field, occurred at the high-banked 1.5-mile Las Vegas oval on Oct. 16.

Cars involved in the wreck were traveling over 200 mph. Wheldon’s car was traveling 224 mph just before the wreck and hit the catch fence at 165 mph.

Prior to the race and then again after the wreck, several drivers called the Vegas track “unsuitable” for modern Indycars and IndyCar races.

INDYCAR officials have taken the Vegas race off the 2012 season and they said Thursday that more tests will be conducted before making a decision about whether or not the IndyCar Series will return to Vegas again after 2012.

“I think that Las Vegas is a great city as a resort destination,” INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard said during a teleconference with the media Thursday. “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.”

The full 2012 IndyCar schedule will be released either Thursday or Friday.

Bernard referred to the crash and fatality as being caused by a “perfect storm” of events and that such a wreck “could have occurred with any size starting field at any track”.

But the report also states that, “While this incident could have occurred at any track at any time, the dynamic of the current car and the overall track geometry at Las Vegas Motor Speedway under race conditions appears to have been one of the contributing factors in this incident.”

Also contained in the report on the 15-car wreck which resulted in Wheldon’s death were, were findings that:

– LVMS featured “plenty of room” for the number of cars in the race (34) and “ample” space in the pits for the cars.

– The Las Vegas track’s variable banking created multiple racing grooves and that produced an unsafe “freedom of movement” of cars on the track. That is, it allowed cars and drivers to move in and out of traffic with ease.

– The accident began as a result of contact between the cars of James Hincliffe and Wade Cunningham as they entered Turn 1. Other cars then got caught up in that wreck. “This initial contact was an occurrence common to racing, as was each subsequent contact.”

– Wheldon’s car traveled in a semi-airborne state for approximately 325 feet.

– Wheldon suffered to blows to the helmet. The first was inconsequential. The second, which involved the fence pole, was fatal.

– Wheldon’s only injuries was the one cause by the fence post to his helmeted head.

– The SAFER Barrier and catch fence operated as intended. “The impact with the fence that resulted in Dan’s non-survivable injuries involved circumstances of location, direction and orientation that were the chance results of previous interactions.”

Brian Barnhart, president of operations for INDCAR, talked about the investigation itself.

Barnhart said, “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.”

Dennis Reinbold, owner of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, reacted positively to the findings.

“It’s good to see that the accident review has been released and we have more answers about Las Vegas,” he said. “I know that there were a number of meetings following up after Las Vegas to really look into the issue and see what could have been avoided. I believe that the report stated the events accurately and that several factors coincided to produce a ‘perfect storm’. We really need to commend IndyCar for continuing to try to find ways to make the cars safer. We keep striving for safety and that’s the number one goal.”

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, December 15 2011
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