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In Racing, Can Fast Become Too Fast?

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    Drivers, including Dan Wheldon (77, in air at left), crash during a wreck that involved 15 cars during the IndyCar Series' auto race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Las Vegas. (AP)

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    Dan Wheldon with the 2012 Dallara IndyCar (IndyCar)

When Dan Wheldon entered turn two of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s 1.5-mile oval for the 10th time this past Sunday, he was driving of one of the safest cars on the planet.

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. 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 few major injuries.

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. And at Las Vegas, several drivers thought one was almost inevitable.

Oriol Servia, who qualified second for the race with an average speed of 222 mph, said, “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. And if you give us the opportunity, we are drivers and we try to go to the front. We race each other hard because that's what we do."

In 2006, the track was redesigned with steeper banking to make side-by-side racing easier for the much slower stock cars that compete in the annual NASCAR race held there. It had the same effect on the IndyCars, which were seen racing four-wide at the time of the crash.

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.”

NASCAR driver Scott Speed, who has competed at Las Vegas in stock cars and was given the opportunity to drive in the spot taken by Wheldon as part of the GoDaddy IndyCar Challenge to bring a non-series regular into the race for the chance to win $5 million, told Fox Sports that, "you get all those cars so equally matched a driver can't make a difference. It's like [NASCAR racing at] Daytona or Talladega, but a lot more dangerous."

Still, 14 drivers survived the incident with only minor injuries, highlighting how safe these cars can be. The reason why Wheldon was not one of them has yet to be determined, but when his car came to a rest it appeared to be missing the protective roll hoop over his head.

Most oval tracks like the one at Las Vegas are surrounded by walls called SAFER barriers that are filled with polystyrene foam to help cushion the force of a crash and have been credited with saving many lives since they were introduced at Indianapolis in 2002. Unfortunately, Wheldon’s car got airborne and came into contact with the catch fence above the wall, which is designed to keep vehicles and debris from leaving the confines of the track, but can cause additional damage in the process.

In what has become an unfortunate irony, Wheldon was working as IndyCar’s official test driver in the weeks leading up to the race, helping to develop an all-new Dallara chassis set to debut next season. Known as the IndyCar Safety Cell, it was designed to offer even better head protection than the current car and has side pods that extend beyond the rear wheels to allow the cars to bump into each other more than they can now without causing an accident like the one that set off the chain reaction in Las Vegas, and also keep them from being launched into the air.

In 2001, CART, 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. Rules were changed to slow the cars down at subsequent events held at the track. 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 racer 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.”

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