The independent report on the fatal accident at Las Vegas Motor Speedway during the IZOD World Championship season finale to the IndyCar season may have concluded that Dan Wheldon's death was a result of a 'perfect storm' of a number of factors, but IndyCar's President of Operations Brian Barnhart is all too aware that the report nonetheless highlights several areas that need addressing by organisers.

"Obviously, the accident has raised a lot of issues," started Barnhart at the press conference following the report's publication. "IndyCar has analysed data, video, still photographs and the physical evidence to better understand the dynamics of the accident and to document what occurred."

With the report stressing that the main contributing causes of the accident came from the combination of the handling of the existing Dallara IR3 chassis with the unique characteristics of this recently repaved variable-banked, multi-grooved high-banked 1.5-mile oval that allowed "limitless" racing lines, the most immediate question is how to spot in advance the danger of a similar combination arising in the future.

Currently, IndyCar conducts formal two-day compatibility and performance tests at new circuits before sanctioning a race there. In the case of LVMS, Scott Dixon and Ryan Briscoe carried out such a test 11 months before race day, and between them they completed a total of 400 laps with a top speed of 214.456mph - much slower than the speeds the cars were already reaching in the early laps of the race on October 16, 2011.

Even with further private testing by IndyCar and Firestone Indy Lights teams in the interim, none of these tests had indicated the problems that would emerge over the race weekend as practice and qualifying led to improving race set-ups that contributed to higher and higher speeds. The final straw was the cars racing en masse in packs for the first time on race day, with drafting allowing for still higher speeds while simultaneously demanding close proximity.

"We've had pack racing at other racetracks before, such as Chicagoland or Texas or other one and a half mile highbanked ovals, there is always a limit," Barnhart explained. "You can be two-wide or three-wide, but at times when you got to the upper lane of Texas or Chicago, whether it's dusty, the grip level lowered, whatever, you couldn't use the entire racetrack.

"What was evident in the Las Vegas event was that the entire racetrack was usable and the lanes were limitless. That was a variable that had not been seen before," he added, explaining that this lack of defined racing grooves led for unpredictability and uncertainty in where drivers would place their cars and lead to increased risk of contact.

That conclusion clearly puts a major focus on identifying when a similar occasion could potentially arise. "I think one of the things that's going to come out of it that's going to be a big deal for us is as we talked about extensive testing to do our best to replicate race conditions," agreed Barnhart. "To identify the overall track geometry at any track where we are looking to run IndyCars 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.

"It is virtually impossible for us to replicate race conditions, as much as we do in the feasibility and compatibility testing, as much as we do in practice," continued Barnhart. "You never get an opportunity to run with everyone out there trying to achieve in practice what they do when the green flag drops in the race.

"I think the importance of it, and one of the things that a demonstrator of the increase in speed was getting more cars out on the racetrack, obviously the draft becomes pretty critical," he added. "If you look in traffic, JR [HIldebrand] was only running 215, Dan [Wheldon]'s running 224. There is a nine mile an hour spread, and they were all in the same pack. Some of that is explained by the drafting aspect and component of being in race condition.

"You don't get that when you only have two cars doing the feasibility test. I think it is something [that the report has] identified. Something we'll have to do is get more cars on there [during compatibility testing.]"

Barnhart also acknowledged that drivers and teams were reluctant to push their cars in testing in the same way that they did at race weekends - partly to protect their equipment and ensure that they didn't needlessly crash by pushing to the limit; partly to 'sandbag' and not show their hand to rivals; and also simply because of the absence of race day adrenalin. But this could potentially lead to misleading or incomplete track feasibility results and would have to change in the future, said Barnhart.

"They'll have an understanding of the requests and requirements to be on track as well as Firestone in picking the tyres," said Barnhart, adding that in future he would "expect something more from the teams and the drivers in terms of the performance parameters we're setting to make sure we have a full and clear understanding of what our expectation is while we go back and race."

The other major topic of discussion for Barnhart after the publication of the independent accident report was the matter of the metal pole supporting the catchfence. It was contact with this pole that inflicted Wheldon's fatal injuries, while the other drivers involved in the crash escaped relatively lightly despite the severity and scale of the overall accident.

Barnhart was questioned about why the metal pole that impacted Wheldon's #77 car was on the inside (or track-side) of the mesh fence nearer the drivers rather than on the outside (crowd-side).

"Our preference is for the fabric to be on the inside, but it wouldn't have made any difference on the outcome of this accident," insisted Barnhart. "There is no indication whatsoever that had the fabric of the mesh been on the inside that the outcome of this accident would have been any different. While we can envision some scenarios where the fabric being on the inside would be beneficial, in this case, it simply doesn't appear that it would have made any difference."

Barnhart pointed out that it's not the mesh fabric's role to stop an entire car. "The fence appeared to perform as designed," he insisted. "The [mesh] fabric is not there to retain a car. That's the object of the post and the cables ... There are sometimes when forces are so great that you have to remember that meshing, that fabric is the box wire fencing that is there to protect and keep the small debris pieces from flying into the grandstand.

"The location of that fabric wouldn't have changed the outcome of this race at all," he summarised.

Although not a subject covered in the report, Barnhart also briefly discussed the matter of the 'open-wheel' nature of the sport and the dangers of wheel-to-wheel contact in raising cars into the air, as happened with four of the 15 cars involved in the Vegas accident.

"Obviously that's one of the thing we're focusing on with the 2012 car," acknowledged Barnhart. "We have always been looking at ways to reduce the interaction of wheeltowheel contact with open-wheel cars. That will continue."

The new 2012 IndyCar Safety Cell chassis - named the DW12 in honour of Wheldon - seeks to address this area of concern by using aerokits to protect the exposed wheel surface, but some fans and drivers have criticised them as crude and ugly "bumpers".

"There is no degree of certainty we can say that the 2012 car would behave any differently," Barnhart conceded. "We are making those changes in an effort to reduce the interaction of wheeltowheel contact and improving that situation. But, again, that is something that takes time and is an evolutionary process."

Barnhart added that the report had also highlighted other, less obvious areas for improvements, even though they wouldn't in themselves have come into significant play at Vegas.

"There will be changes made," he stated. "Some of them are pretty small and may seem insignificant, but they actually can have huge effects, and that includes looking for a standardised location on the steering system of a warning to the drivers of an unsafe condition on the racetrack. We're looking at improving the head surround system to make driver extrication on their own or from a safety team member easier."

Summing up, Barnhart said: "I think what we're going to learn, again, is that safety is an evolutionary process. The 2012 car has been under design for about 18 months, and many components of the IR3 have carried over into the 2012 car design, as well as several areas of improvement that we're looking for as the continued evolution of that safety.

"The best thing we can do is take this situation and try to learn from it and move forward," he finished. "When you have a tragedy like this ... sometimes the only thing good that comes out of it is improvement in the future."

The full report can currently be downloaded from related links on the article on the Indianapolis Star website.


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