Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s “limitless” racing surface was singled out Thursday as a significant factor in a “perfect storm” of conditions that led to the death of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon.
Wheldon was killed Oct. 16 during the series’ season finale when his car sailed 325 feet through the air into a catchfence, and his head hit a post in the fence. The blow created a “non-survivable injury.”
In the wake of the 15-car wreck, many criticized CEO Randy Bernard and IndyCar for creating a deadly mix of circumstances – offering a jobless Wheldon the chance to earn a $5 million bonus if he could drive from the back of a 34-car field to Victory Lane on a high-banked oval, where a field of mixed experience levels had enough room to race three-wide at over 220 mph.
But IndyCar president Brian Barnhart dismissed those factors and focused instead on Vegas’ multi-grooved wide racing surface that heightened the dangers of pack racing on a high-banked oval.
The IndyCar, with open wheels and an open cockpit, is not suited for the pack racing that develops on ovals. Unlike NASCAR, where cars bump and bang on every lap, any contact in an IndyCar results in either a crash or a slew of broken parts.
“Racing grooves not only restrict drivers’ naturally aggressive racing behavior, but make the location of another competitor’s car on the racetrack more predictable,” the report said.
But when the race began at Vegas, the packed 34-car field was all over the track – movement series officials did not expect despite drivers’ warnings.
“The ability of the drivers to race from the bottom of the racetrack all the way up to the wall and run limitless is not a condition we’ve experienced before,” Barnhart said. “I don’t think we were expecting it to be any different from what we’d experienced in the last decade at places like Chicagoland, Kentucky, Fontana and Texas. ...
“We were never expecting to be able to run from the top to the bottom (at Las Vegas).”
Most ovals have one or two racing grooves.
Drivers, however, predicted as early as preseason testing that Las Vegas would be hairy and repeated those warnings during the buildup to the race.
“We knew that was the case before we even started the race, because it’s been the case at (ovals) where you can run multi-grooves,” said driver Will Power, who broke his back in the accident.
Bernard already has bought his way out of Year 2 of the Las Vegas contract. The third and final year of the agreement is up for review.