When the race cars began to collide Sunday on the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Dr. Terry Trammell immediately muted his television. He watched in silence to focus on the signs of injury based on car positions and how the safety crew was responding. When he saw the helicopter arrive, he knew that someone was severely injured. Dan Wheldon, a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, was pronounced dead two hours later.
As a member of the Indy Racing League’s medical team, Trammell has seen hundreds of IndyCar crashes in the past 30 years and, with the sport’s major safety innovations, the rapid decline of serious injuries. While doctors, industry analysts and drivers say that it is too early to tell what exactly led to Wheldon’s crash and death, they also simultaneously point to several factors the industry needs to revisit. This includes the steepness of the track, the number of cars on the field and speed.
“We need to examine how to preserve the race and also make it safe,” Trammell says. The danger, he added, was that once it leaves the ground, it becomes an airplane instead of a race car.
One of the determining factors of the safety of a racetrack is the steepness of the road. High-banked tracks are at a steeper angle, allowing tires to grip the road more strongly. However, they also allow cars to go at maximum speed without needing to slow down, increasing the chance of accidents.
In his tribute to Wheldon, IndyCar driver Oriol Servia said it was fortunate the sport has gotten safer but that he still had concerns. More drivers also voiced their concerns on Twitter on Tuesday.
“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,” Servia said.
Drivers were wary from the start of the race, says Holly Cain, a writer for FOXSports.com, who has covered auto racing for 21 years.
“This one had a much steeper banking, which causes speeds to be faster,” Cain says. “A lot of the drivers were concerned about this before the race. They talked about it and my colleagues said [the drivers] were nervous.”
Oval high-banked racing is popular in the U.S., in contrast to other countries, because it is part of the culture to “watch high-performance cars going around in circles,” says Liz Clarke, sportswriter for The Washington Post and author of One Helluva Ride: How NASCAR Swept the Nation.
A number of drivers, including NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, questioned whether the open-wheel-style car belonged on an oval track.
“The question that needs to be asked is, ‘Does this race car belong on high-banked ovals?’ ” Clarke says.
Number of Speeding Cars
In March, IndyCar announced that it would limit the number of cars on its track to 26 in part to address safety concerns on tracks where pit lanes are unable to accommodate more than 26 cars. Shortly after the announcement, it reversed its position and lifted the cap on the number of cars.
IndyCar also announced a $5 million bonus to any driver outside the series who won the season finale in Las Vegas, allowing Sunday’s race to have 34 cars with Wheldon’s entry in the promotional challenge.
Since Wheldon’s death, drivers and commentators have criticized the number of cars allowed on the 1.5-mile track. With drivers going at the maximum speeds possible for the entire duration of a race, the cars are more densely packed, leaving almost no time to react and no room for error.
“The pity to me, when death is involved in motor racing, is that the average viewer doesn’t know if a car is going 220 miles or 200 miles per hour,” Clarke says. “Speed doesn’t make a better race. It’s just a marketing tool or wow factor.”
The auto racing industry has a long history of responding after casualties. After Dale Earnhardt’s death in February 2001, cars were improved, soft walls were erected on nearly all tracks, and leagues required their drivers to wear a neck stabilization device — dramatically reducing the number of serious injuries.
Trammell is also a member of the International Council of Motor Sports Sciences, which provides medical advice for safety innovations. He says more than the number of cars, speed or circumference of the track, the fence needs to be re-examined — from the standpoint of a car that could become airborne. He says part of the problem on Sunday was the car’s penetration of the fence, which is designed to keep fans protected, with less regard for the drivers.
“It’s still a sport, and fan interest dictates racing be exciting,” Trammell says. “The real key is figuring out how to be able to race close and make it safe. There’s always a limit.”
Trammell, who was part of the medical team during the fatal crashes of Gonzalo Rodriguez and Greg Moore in 1999, says he and his colleagues will make a “very detailed analysis,” finding out what specifically caused the crash, what the injuries were and see “if there’s anything that could have been changed going forward.”
“It’s tremendously safer than it was 10 years ago,” Dr. Bobby Lewis, a member of the ICMS, says. “You see that cars crash into these safety walls and the driver just gets out. We’ve gotten lulled into believing it’s going to be fine.”