Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Post Dan Wheldon Tragedy Reaction Review To Safety On Banked Ovals

A memorial to Dan Wheldon is displayed at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where the British-born driver was killed in an accident on Sunday. Image Credit: Robert Laberge/Getty Images via

Post Dan Wheldon Tragedy Reaction Review To Safety On Banked Ovals

The safety debate centers on the fact that IndyCar Dallara vehicles, which all have the same bodies and engines, can not avoid pack racing at very high speeds on a circuit as small and banked as the Las Vegas track, and this sets up a condition that is dangerous with open-cockpit, Indy-style cars. The wide track bed combined with steep banking and the mushroom shaped vortex wash that comes out from behind the cars, set up a very unstable mix.

Driving the Go Daddy No. 7, Andretti Autosport Dallara, Danica Patrick posted the fastest practice time with a staggering 224.719 mph on Oct. 13. After learning her time, Patrick's reaction proved prophetic.

"It's friggin' fast here," said Patrick. "Almost a 225 lap is like Indy speeds. The track is nice and smooth and we’ll be three-wide out there, which will be exciting. The race is going to be crazy and the crashes will be spectacular."

Danica, who will be driving in NASCAR next year, was not the only driver talking up the danger of the course in the days before the race.

"It's so fast and you're so close to each other, it's exciting," veteran driver, and IMS Radio commentator, Hewlett-Packard sponsored Davey Hamilton told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, also noting that he expected four wide racing. "There's really no room for error."

Driver comments after the Wheldon tragedy where 15 cars were collected in a fiery mess confirmed the fear of this unstable mix.

"We all know this is part of the sport," driver Oriol Servia said of the danger. "We all had a bad feeling about this place in particular just because of the high banking and how easy it was to go flat" out on the throttle.

"Within five laps people started to do crazy stuff," Dario Franchitti said immediately after the accident. "I wanted no part of it. I love hard racing, but that to me is not what it's about. I said before, this is not a suitable track. You can't get away from anybody. One small mistake and you have a massive wreck."

"Now we need to rethink the way we're doing things," said Tony Kanaan, who started on the pole.

The Dallara IR-05 was built specifically to be driven in excess of 230 mph and protect its driver in the event of an accident at those speeds. Its carbon fiber chassis was designed to break apart during a collision and absorb the forces of a series of massive impacts while keeping the cockpit surrounding the driver intact.

Since its introduction in 2005, only one driver, Paul Dana, had died behind the wheel of the Dallara before Sunday. In a freak accident during practice for the 2006 season opener in Homestead, Fla., Dana lost control of his car and hit a damaged vehicle that had come to a stop on the track in front of him head-on, at an estimated speed of 176 mph. In a bit of irony, Dan Wheldon went on to win that race. Since then, the cars had been used in 100 races and covered more than 500,000 miles in competition without any loss of life, and fe
But one thing the vehicles can’t do is prevent an accident like the 15-car pileup that took the 33-year-old Wheldon’s life.

Driver James Jakes, whose car was damaged in the incident, added that “unfortunately, it’s something I think a lot of us thought might happen. We practiced with no more than five or six cars in a group and now we’ve got 34 ... there was going to be some trouble.”

During the 15 car collection in turn #2, Wheldon’s car got airborne and came into contact with the catch fence above the wall. The metal mesh fence is designed to keep vehicles and debris from leaving the confines of the track, but can cause additional damage in the process.

“It is one of those things that when you are racing you are always aware that there are risks,” Dan Weldon teammate, Alex Tagliani said. “But you never think it is going to come to that."

“I am very sad and angry,” expressed Alex. What angered the 38-year-old was that no one listened to the drivers’ fears over the conditions before the race. Tagliani felt that, like NASCAR, when it revolutionized driver safety after the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001 at Daytona International Speedway, IndyCar must look at doing the same in its series.

“If we are going to come back to these (1 1/2-mile banked ovals) we are going to have to change the aero packages to slow the cars down,” continued Alex. “It is just not right that some one has to die to make those changes.”

One thing that Tagliani proposes is that drivers, team owners, track owners and IndyCar bosses get together in the off season to talk about what can be done to make racing both better and safer.

“There is definitely things that need to be discussed and things to look at,” Tagliani concluded. “We for sure have to talk to the series bosses. Right now my mind is so confused. We have to talk about racing these types of cars on these types of race tracks. I don’t think tracks like the mile and a half at Las Vegas is the right thing for us.”

On Friday, IndyCar President and CEO Randy Bernard announced that the series plans to return to Las Vegas for its finale in 2012, and the organization has not yet said if it is reconsidering that decision.

In an interview with Fox Sports in the wake of the crash, former CART/ChampCar driver and current NASCAR star A.J. Allmendinger said, “obviously, with the new car coming in, it needs to be safer, but there are tracks that they don't need to race at.”

A template situation that IndyCar could have learned from as it relates to high-banked mile and a half ovals happened in 2001. CART/ChampCar, one of the two open-wheel racing series that later combined to form IndyCar, was forced to cancel a race at the Texas Motor Speedway after drivers complained in practice about getting dizzy and blacking out from the g-forces created by the high speeds that their cars were capable of on the steeply-banked 1.5-mile oval. In this case the rules were changed to slow the cars down through downforce and engine set-ups at subsequent events held at the track.
(ht: various news services - FoxNews/Huffington Post/Toronto Sun - for quotes and background on the Dallara IR-05)

The two biggest words that stand out the most, if one were to read between the lines, in all of these post Dan Wheldon tragedy driver reactions to safety on banked ovals - Race Control.

Upon reflection ... Race Control has been the overriding story (race call miscues effecting championship points standings, recommended car set ups, and venue management) for the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series World Championship season and the last season of the Dallara IR-05.

... notes from The EDJE

[Article was first published as Post Dan Wheldon Tragedy Reaction Review To Safety On Banked Ovals at Technorati]

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