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“There are multiple factors that are not uncommon to racing that came together in a way that claimed Dan’s life,” said INDYCAR President of Operations Brian Barnhart, who was involved in the investigation. "It is a tragedy. Our thoughts and support will always be with Dan’s family.”
Wheldon, who started from the rear of the 34-car field, was running 24th on Lap 11 when the accident that involved 15 cars occurred between Turns 1-2.
The combined data from various technical resources provided INDYCAR officials insight into what transpired during the multi-car incident, including what happened to the No. 77 car during the accident.
“INDYCAR’s commitment to safety was enhanced by Dan Wheldon’s testing throughout 2011 of the new car to be used by INDYCAR in 2012,” INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard said during a news conference at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that was streamed live on indycar.com.
“The 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season ushers in an era of a new race car and the opportunity for continued safety advancements. Dan Wheldon was instrumental in the testing and development of this new car and the safety innovations that it represents. We are thankful for his efforts and commitment to racing.
"These observations will be part of a continuous process to improve racing so it's both competitive and as safe as possible.”
The accident review revealed that Wheldon’s path on the lower portion of the racetrack was blocked by the multi-car crash he was approaching. About 2.4 seconds prior to contact with the left-rear tire of the No. 83 car, Wheldon reduced throttle to 55 percent and applied the brakes to decelerate from 224 mph on the front straightaway to 165 mph in Turn 1. A second later, the throttle was reduced to less than 10 percent.
After striking the No. 83 car’s tire, the No. 77 car became airborne and began to roll to the right. The right rear of the car made contact with the racing surface and the chassis traveled rearward first toward the Turn 2 SAFER Barrier. The chassis then rotated so it was traveling in race direction parallel to the fencing along the top of the permanent wall behind the SAFER Barrier, with the cockpit open toward the fencing.
The chassis impacted a vertical post along the right side of the tub that – as the car passed by -- created significant damage extending from the pedal bulkhead, through the cockpit and shearing off the roll hoop. As the pole intruded the cockpit, the impact with the driver’s helmeted head produced non-survivable blunt force trauma.
The side intrusion panels, which were added to IZOD IndyCar Series cars in 2008, along with the driver’s restraints performed as designed, according to review of physical evidence.
The fencing, including post, cables and fabric at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, was found to have performed to expectations in retaining a race car from leaving the track. In the report, INDYCAR stated its preference for the fabric being on the inside of the track instead of its present configuration.
The response to the scene by INDYCAR’s Holmatro Safety Team was rapid and decisive, according to the review, and there was no evidence of vehicle mechanical or structural issues contributing to the accident.
INDYCAR analyzed data from the accident data recorders carried on board each race car involved in the crash, the on-board data acquisition system from teams, timing and scoring data, video, still photographs and the physical evidence. Additionally, reports were filed by track safety personnel, technical personnel, race control personnel and medical personnel, and information was provided by the chief medical officer of Las Vegas Motor Speedway and the Clark County Coroner.
Wolf Technical Services provided independent assurance that the investigation protocol, evidence examined and reviewed, and the conclusions reached are consistent and appropriate to standard scientific and engineering investigation methods.
Examination of video of the incident demonstrates normal “pack racing” that is common on high-banked ovals. However, there was almost unlimited movement on the track surface under race conditions not previously experienced that is attributed to track geometry beyond banking. Such freedom of movement outside of normal racing grooves not only increased the probability for car-to-car contact, but made it more difficult for drivers to predict the movement of other drivers.
"It wasn't a challenge to these highly-talented drivers," Barnhart said, noting that the now decommissioned chassis ran more that 2 million miles in its eight years with one fatality. "You don't want to get to the limitless racing capabilities that we had at Vegas so we'll try to identify an aerodynamic package (through testing) that makes it more challenging for the drivers. We have to create through extensive testing is a limit. They have to know there is a line that they can't cross, and I think that will make the racing better as we look at new venues."
The 34-car starting field was determined to be acceptable based on factors such as length and width of the racetrack and pit space capability, and review of the incident supports the conclusion. Similar consequences could have occurred with any size starting field at any track.
As is customary protocol, INDYCAR conducts a series of on-site inspections and an on-track test to confirm the compatibility of its race cars to new or reconfigured racetracks. The inspections of Las Vegas Motor Speedway included a two-day compatibility and performance test on Nov. 15, 2010, by drivers Scott Dixon of Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Ryan Briscoe of Team Penske. Private testing by IZOD IndyCar Series and Firestone Indy Lights teams followed.
Following the incident, INDYCAR assembled a technical committee of sanctioning body personnel, team engineers and Dallara representatives to focus on the aerodynamics and mechanical considerations of IZOD IndyCar Series cars competing on high-banked 1.5-mile ovals. It determined that each high-banked oval has unique characteristics, and each should be considered individually.
INDYCAR will not sanction a race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2012 as was announced in October, but will conduct testing at the facility with the next-generation car to determine compatibility and performance for a potential return in 2013.
"Las Vegas is a great city, a resort destination. Our fans, our sponsors and everyone likes Las Vegas and it's a great place for the race," Bernard said. "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 2012 Dallara Automobili chassis enhances safety components such as side intrusion panels and wheel tethers. The cockpit is longer and wider than the decommissioned monocoque, which allows for additional padding underneath and behind the driver. Also, a “floating headrest” works in conjunction with the mandatory FHR (Frontal Head Restraint) attached to the helmet. Additionally, driver positioning provides enhanced sightlines.
Reduction of wheel-to-wheel contact also has been incorporated into the new car as well as a standardized location on the steering wheel for the yellow light (on-track caution) warning system and improvement of the head surround latch system to make driver extrication easier and quicker.
"When you have a tragedy like this, it's disappointing that the only good thing that comes out of it is improvement in the future," Barnhart said. "The best thingt we can do is take this situation, learn from it and move forward. Safety is an evolutionary process. The 2012 car has been under design for about 18 months and many components of the IR3 (chassis) have carried over into the 2012 car design as well as several areas of improvement that we're looking for as the continuation of that safety.
"One of the big things will be extensive testing to do our best to replicate race conditions to identify the overall track geometry of any track we're looking to run IndyCars to try 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."
IZOD IndyCar Series teams were taking delivery of their first next-generation car and Chevrolet and Honda were continuing on-track development of their engines at Sebring International as the news conference was being conducted.