Rethinking oval racing for IndyCar after Las Vegas


Posted on

| Written by

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

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”

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 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

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

Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

Got a potential story, tip or enquiry? Find out more about RaceFans and contact us here.

95 comments on “Rethinking oval racing for IndyCar after Las Vegas”

  1. It’s not surprising this kind of thing happen in oval racing, specially Indycar.

    What it is surprising is that it doesn’t happen every weekend or so.

    With such speeds, and no chance to avoid a car spinning in the middle of the track, this could happen much more frequently, sadly.

    They’ll have to reduce the average speed if they want to stick with ovals, imo.

    1. The average speed had nothing to do with the crash. The pack racing at those speeds is the problem. It was too easy to drive and drivers couldn’t differentiate themselves from one another. Consequently what needs to be done is that either Indycar stops racing the easy flat 1.5 mile ovals or they change the cars to give them more horsepower and less downforce so they won’t be flat any more.

      Great article Keith!

      1. What about spreading the field more at the start? Is this something that is being considered too?

      2. However the speed the cars race at has a direct bearing on the seriousness of any incident.

        1. Not really. 220mph or 180mph doesn’t really make a difference. And Jeff Crosnoff died while racing at a much lower speed(approx 150 mph) at the Toronto street course, after being launched into the catch-fencing cockpit first.

          As I said above, the speed of the cars in the corners should be limited by reducing downforce and increasing horespower to enable quick spread of the field not the speed on the straightaways IMO

          Motorsport is all about speed. That’s why there will always be an element of danger in it. If there was no speed there wouldn’t be any danger but it also wouldn’t be motorsport.

          You can improve the cars safety and the tracks safety and the helmets safety but reducing speeds is the totally wrong path

      3. Yes, a quick fix would be less cars per race. That’s too much speedy machines for so little space. No more lives need to be claimed.

    2. I just read an interesting piece with Zanardi offering his opinion on the matter. About the speed:

      “As I often say, it’s not speed the cause of such a crash. If anything, it could be an aggravating factor,”

      , he goes on to say he thinks its a problem the cars have too much downforce now, making it too easy to just go full throttle (and makes for less spread in the field for differences in setup and driver skill).

      I found this a quite striking comment as well

      “At Las Vegas it wasn’t a race between drivers anymore. It was a pack of cars moving all together, bunched up with no chance of breaking off. Now, when you race for five minutes with your rival right next to your side, at the point that you notice if his sponsor stickers are not straight, when it’s too easy do drive even on the outside line…
      “At that point it’s like driving with a tutor. An obscenely idiotic thing, because then you distract yourself for not concentrating enough. After a while, even if you are travelling at 340 km/h, you don’t realise it anymore.”

      Reminds me of the times we saw Kimi “fall asleep” and lose the car when leading without anyone challenging them (and numerous other drivers as well).

  2. Great article.

    Being from Indiana I have the privilege to attend the Indianapolis 500 each year and the Kentucky 300 the past two races. The enthusiasm Dan showed for the Indianapolis 500 and racing in general was inspiring. He was a true gift to indycar, and will be missed.

    That said, I don’t think the answer is leaving ovals completely. I feel like the biggest problem was the high level of banking. Having attended Kentucky this year, another 1.5 mile oval I can say that there was never that kind of pack racing. There was close racing for sure (the last 25 laps were spectacular) but it never seemed overly dangerous. The speeds never were that high either and I personally feel as though speeds should only break 210 at Indianapolis. Changes definitely will be needed within the coming months.

    One thing is certain though that dan wheldon will be deeply missed. He was a fan favorite because of how talented he was but also because he was such a nice guy. It will be a emotional Indianapolis 500 next year for sure, with remembering dan as the focus.

  3. I’m not a big follower of Indy at all, but it seems to me that they ought to evaluate what sort of ovals they should be using and ensuring that they stick to their own guidelines when it comes to the number of cars on track.

    1. Road tracks are much safer! These cars are much too fast and too open to make it safe.
      I just don’t get the ovals for cars with downforce, no breaking, no accelerating, all they do is slipstream each other?

  4. Brilliant article, Keith, you can tell a lot of work has gone into it. RIP Dan.

    1. Indeed a good piece of writing their Keith.

      The only thing i took away was the fact that 3 cars were contacted from directly behind and all 3 cars that hit them them took off, surely the default result of hitting the car in front shouldn’t be going airbourne?

      1. @sparkyj23 Thanks

        surely the default result of hitting the car in front shouldn’t be going airbourne?

        That is what the new car is designed to prevent.

  5. Great article. Nicely thought out.

    I think Indycar needs to adapt and change but retain it’s character. Indycar is oval racing, just like F1 is circuit racing! Just like F1 though, they need to adapt and make these ovals safer! Less banking, less speed and safer cars. We can only hope Dan’s tragic death was not in vain but will trigger the same kind of safety campaign as F1’s own after Ayrton death back in 1994.

    RIP Dan!

  6. Its the catch fencing, also apparently known as the Indycar Grater, should be the first priority, surely. I do not know what the solution is, but even if it means drastic changes to the circuits, it all has to go, now.

  7. Yes, the grater needs to be improved.

    Oval tracks for AOW – Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Phoenix, Loudon, Richmond, Iowa, Twin Ring Motegi. These tracks are acceptable to me. Chicago or Miami if the new car coming out next generation (2012) reduces the affinity for cars to get air for the slightest of slights.

    I hope the series doesn’t overreact and eliminate oval racing at all. It can’t do that without being hypocritical anyway, because the month of May isn’t going anywhere ever.

    But (as an American pining for the ever older days of AOW being significant in any way in the larger picture) that’s because my definition of AOW is something like 60-65/35-40% road course/ovals, with there being more road circuits than street circuits.

    1. @alonsowdc AOW = All open-wheel, I’m guessing?

      1. American OW, Keith.

        Going back from USAC to CART to the split and the IRL and CART going bankrupt to form Champ Car to it being dissolved into today’s IndyCar Series, which sort of has been a catch-all term since day one anyway.

      2. Maybe American Open Wheel.

      3. American Open Wheel


    I think Davey is right here about the catch fencing, the poles just destroy cars. The way Wheldons car went into the fence reminded a lot of Jeff Krosnoffs fatal crash, which happened at Toronto, a street course. I think some kind of cockpit protection is needed as well. Paul Tracy said that Pippa Manns car went through his cockpit area and broke his steering wheel, he also tweeted a picture of his helmet which had a tire mark across the visor, from Manns car as well.

    I think increasing power and decreasing downforce on ovals would be good for the sporting aspect as much as the safety aspect, I never liked the pack racing anyhow

    1. +1

      Pack racing is unnatural. If Dario or Tony cannot differentiate themselves from the likes of Mann or Kimball, then something is surely wrong(no disrespect to those two, I could’ve chosen anyone who doesn’t belong to the top echelon of Indy drivers). Hope next year’s car is safer and that Indycar implements all the neccesary changes to catch fencing, cars and does a thorough study about what ovals are suitable.

  9. even nascar drivers have stated the obvious:
    “if you want to prevent ‘the big one’ then you must reduce the banking”

    save the velodromes for bicycles. these 1.5 mile ovals promote frequent and huge crashes, which on any oval brings the action to a complete stop for 15 minutes. the banking simultaneously enables higher energy levels and leaves drivers with nowhere to go. there can only be 1 result from running around a bowl at full throttle. the giant ovals – indianapolis with its straights, daytona and talladega with their sheer-cliff banking) have this effect mitigated somewhat due to their massive size.

    1.5 mile soup bowls set the stage for a demolition derby, and people that enjoy it are not race fans.

    1. Ok, so you get rid of the dangerous tracks.


      Then what? These tracks are more likely to cause a serious incident. But the results of a serious incident won’t necessarily be better on any other track.

      I don’t watch Indycar, but from what I can see it is not that uncommon that a car will fly into the fencing. With open top cars. I don’t see how this can ever be safe.

  10. I’ve always wanted f1 to have one oval race in its season, just as a comparison to be able to see the differences. Now I’m not so sure…

    I’ve only really been into motorsports for the last 12 years, so I missed the very dangerous and sad days, so I’ve always enjoyed a good crash – knowing some billionaire has to pay for it! But after watching live the fatal incidences of both wheldon and simocelli more has to be done to prevent these tragic events. who really cares if the canopy is fully or semi-enclosed, or if bike riders wear additional saftey gear – simoceli’s crash was very unusual and I know that not much more could have been done in terms of safety, but if they had some sort of hans device his helmet may not have come off.

    1. A canopy would not have saved Dan Wheldon. If anything, it would have complicated his removal from the car.

  11. Fantastic article, Keith.

  12. I have never been lucky enough to be at a oval race but speeds of 220MPH+ is crazy. Surely they could cut that down to around 180 and that won make to much difference to the show.

    I thought since Mike Conways crash that the fence above the barriers were very dangerous and that they should be replaced with something that doesnt cause massive damage to car and driver .

    What changes does the new car make so that the chance of flying over other cars is reduced?

    1. Running in a pack at 180MPH is no less dangerous than running in a pack at 220MPH. Ask Dale Earnhardt.

      The new spec chassis includes a heavy, unsightly (in my mind) rear bumper.

    2. The back wheels are pretty much inclosed in bodywork to prevent cars from climbing over each other.

  13. The scale of the accident and its terrible consequences has raised questions over the viability of open-wheel cars racing on ovals.

    Perhaps in mainstream and tabloid press. No real Indycar fan or journalist would seriously suggest abandoning oval racing.

    The solution is simple: more horsepower, less downforce, less grip. When drivers are forced to drive (not just steer), pack racing will cease to exist.

    We do not need radical solutions to simple problems.

    1. I agree with MVEilenstein, if horsepower was increased and there was a reduction in downforce, it would force the drivers to lift off the throttle and possibly brake for corners. It would allow for differentiation in speeds of cars; with different entry corner speeds, braking, exit corner speeds etc. Thus ending not only pack racing, but a situation where drivers just run side-by-side for endless laps and cannot escape one another.

      IndyCar races on 1.5 mile ovals are utterly tedious, it’s like NASCAR restrictor plate racing; there is nothing interesting in watching a bunch of cars running wide open on the throttle for a whole race. Not only would more powerful cars with less downforce and grip be safer, the racing would be far more varied and interesting.

      The boring side-by-side racing has existed since IRL was formed, and the safety of the track or number of cars had nothing to do with the Las Vegas crash – as some have suggested. There have been multiple car pile ups with far fewer cars.

      On a side note, CART had an aero system called the Handford Device, it allowed the cars to slingshot and get separated.

      1. On a side note, CART had an aero system called the Handford Device, it allowed the cars to slingshot and get separated.

        My recollection was that the Handford device – a flat plate across the back of the rear wing to reduce downforce and increase drag on superspeedways – increased overtaking because it made for a bigger slipstream. It was used in the late 1990s but was ditched several years before CART merged with the IRL.

        1. Yeah it was kinda ditched after Greg Moore died. It was sorta blamed on causing his crash.

        2. In fact, didn’t it bring racing a bit like we saw in Vegas. With tight packed cars all doing about the same speeds?

    2. More horsepower? More? Are you serious?

      What concerns me is that with the cars going even faster, the results are likely to be even worse.

      1. Dead serious.

      2. @Mike See the quote from Paul Tracy in the article – that’s what he said too.

      3. The trick would be @mike, that not everyone would be able to go that quick in the corners, forcing them to choose a different line, slow down for the corners and thereby it would cease to be a pack and would spread out far more.

        Not to mention it would give slight differences in setup and enable the better drivers to build some advantage, enhancing this effect.

    3. @MVEilenstein Those involved in motor racing cannot, as you suggest, behave as if they exist in a vacuum, free from outside scrutiny.

      The mainstream coverage of the crash ran the gamut from restrained and informed to hysterical and ghoulish. We shouldn’t ignore the former because of the latter.

      You may not like it, you may not agree with it, but it would be irresponsible to ignore it.

      1. I tend to ignore the latter because it’s little more than tabloid reporting.

  14. Satchel_Charge
    26th October 2011, 23:36

    IMO cutting out all oval tracks is best. Let’s see more real racetracks :)

    1. Are you joking?

      1. Satchel_Charge
        27th October 2011, 0:26

        No. Although I’m not an ICR fan (or a fan of anything that happens on an asphalt speedway, for that matter) so perhaps commenting at all on this story is foolish of me.

        1. Oval track racing has a long, rich heritage in the US and many other countries. Doing away with it isn’t really an option.

          1. Satchel_Charge
            27th October 2011, 0:47

            It’s wishful thinking, I know, and I am definitely willing to respect the history behind some of these tracks. What I have trouble with is the basic philosophy of racing on an oval track when real circuits (as I say it :P ) are so much more exciting for everyone involved (including the cars, from a viewpoint of the stress they receive via an undulating track!) If an oval is covered in snow or ice or dirt, or mud…… I can definitely begin seeing the appeal. But I simply cannot get behind an asphalt oval.

          2. Satchel_Charge
            27th October 2011, 0:49

            I should also mention that I do concede ovals are better for a grandstand audience but anything more than that….

          3. Oval Tracks will never exit the US. The vast majority of race facilities in the US are, indeed, ovals. You may not like them but thank heaven you dont make the decision.

            Done properly, an oval track is just as safe(or unsafe) as a circuit course.

            Though I have not crunched all the numbers available at the data source below, it looks like there is a full distribution of fatalities on every genre of racing, OW, CW, Oval, and Circuit racing.

            Driving fast is dangerous, at 220, 180 and even 40 mph, people die. Steps can be taken to reduce, but the safest way to use any motorvehicle is at very low speed.

            Racers are not blind to these risks, and they choose them, just as we all do when we engage in skiing, backpacking, kayaking skydiving, mt biking, or basically anything that doesnt involve the sofa and the TV remote.

  15. Unfortunately it looks like it was every worst possible contributing factor rolled into one: the speed, the closeness, the size of the field, the catch fencing that destroyed Dan’s car…

    The new car is a massive step in the right direction. But the kind of racing at Las Vegas can’t be allowed in IndyCar again. The catch fencing has to be replaced too, maybe with the kind of shielding seen at hockey games.

    IndyCar wouldn’t be IndyCar without the ovals. Squaring this principle with keeping the drivers safe is their goal now.

    1. I was just thinking the same thing about the ice-hockey style shielding. Would be better to have a belt like go-karting than a ‘grater’.

      1. Plexiglass would probably not solve it. Even in Ice Hockey, panels have shattered at the force of a puck (famously into the lap of Wayne Gretzky’s wife on one occasion); Racecar energy levels would moot this point.

        There is one other clear material I know of called Gorilla Glass by which actual glass is strengthened via a chemical process. However, the costs of wrapping a 1.5 mile racetrack would disqualify the solution.

        The best I can think of is to cover the “grater” with thinner clear panels. Strength is taken from the cables, while friction is reduced by the panels. Now you just have to hope the panels dont break into pointy ended spears to stab the drivers and spectators.

        1. There must be something strong enough? Even if it has to be a metre thick. They need something to replace the catch-fencing because that’s the most dangerous thing about IndyCar racing, in my opinion.

  16. 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.

    1. @MVEilenstein I’m not sure we do disagree on this point – I wouldn’t describe the racing at Kentucky as “pack racing”. (I do agree it was an exciting finish!)

  17. 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.

  18. Ed d'Agliano-Luna
    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…

  19. 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

  20. 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 a 2.5 km race track 20 cars should be a safe number.

    1. @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?

      1. @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.

        1. @wasiF1 Actually the limit in F1 is 26.

        2. 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.

  21. 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.

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

    2. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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

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


    “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.

  25. 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.

    1. 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)

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

    1. First thing I actually meant to say was great article. Alot of talking points here on what was a week we need to learn from.

      It’s also great hearing from everyone after a period of time to reflect.

    2. And thanks to you @keithcollantine for the excellent article! It really offers a very thorough and balanced view of the situation.

  27. 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.


    1. @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.

    2. 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).

      1. 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!

  28. 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.

  29. 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….

  30. 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?

  31. 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.

  32. Flying Lobster 27
    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

  33. 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.

  34. 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.

  35. 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.

  36. 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.

    1. 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.

    2. 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…

  37. 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.

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

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

  39. do what nascar does put a restrictor plate on them

Comments are closed.