Randy Bernard and Brian Barnhart maintained a suitably somber and professorial mein during a press conference held Thursday morning at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The subject matter - the initial findings of the INDYCAR investigation into the fatal accident at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on October 16th - made for a subdued atmosphere as the two series officials summarized in brief the conclusions that INDYCAR derived. A full 49-page report was subsequently released to the media.
Very little was surprising about what INDYCAR revealed as causal factors for the accident, with Bernard calling the accident a "perfect storm" and Barnhart pointing to "location, direction, and orientation" as the key factors for the impact that killed 2011 Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon.
According to INDYCAR, Wheldon was killed by the intrusion of a catchfence pole into his cockpit that caused non-survivable head trauma. Due to the impact force of the car on the fencing, Barnhart maintained that even if the fence meshing had been on the other (trackside) side of the poles instead of behind (grandstand-side) the poles, the conditions would not have changed and the outcome would not have been different.
Bernard and Barnhart quickly and completely discounted the idea that field size or the $5 million GoDaddy Challenge played any role in either the accident or its outcome. Suitability testing based on track measurements and the cars' turning radius into pit boxes resulted in a maximum theoretical field size of 37 cars, three more than the 34 cars which started the Las Vegas race.
Most of the focus for cause of the accident was laid on the doorstep of Las Vegas Motor Speedway's new track surface, a variable-banked, multi-grooved high banked layout with high grip levels. According to Barnhart, the ability for drivers to utilize "limitless lanes" was a significant contributor to the accident. Other high-banked ovals have one or two ideal racing grooves outside of which traction and drivability are severely curtailed, which INDYCAR officials say helps to reduce driver aggressiveness. But the condition of the LVMS racing surface had no such limiting factor, and drivers could drive at full speed in virtually any lane.
One of the drivers who was racing at Las Vegas that day agrees completely with INDYCAR's assessment. "It was too easy in the draft to go wherever you wanted," says the driver, who asked to remain anonymous. "At the time I just thought my car was great, but it seems like everyone had a car they could put anywhere they wanted to regardless of the setup."
In theory, at least, INDYCAR's findings allow them to schedule more races at tracks famous for "pack racing," such as Texas Motor Speedway. Indeed, the series is hoping to release the 2012 schedule by the end of this week.
Still at issue are the unsolved questions about cockpit intrusion and the results of high-speed contact on open-wheel cars. The Dallara DW12, which is being delivered today to race teams, has measures in place designed to reduce the consequences of light, incidental wheel contact, but the contact force and speed present in the Las Vegas crash (Wheldon impacted Charlie Kimball's car at 165mph and sustained lateral G forces of 24G as he went airborne) are still unknown quantities with the new chassis. Driver protection in the DW12 is significantly increased, but some parties have questioned whether those measures go far enough, particularly in cases of cockpit intrusion by debris or fire.