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Speed kills: Recounting tragic IndyCar crash

Dario Franchitti, driver of the #10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara Honda hugs a crew member after driver Dan Wheldon, driver of the #77 Dallara Honda, was killed during the Las Vegas Indy 300 part of the IZOD IndyCar World Championships presented by Honda at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on October 16, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Four-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti summed up the tragedy of the accident that claimed the life of fellow driver Dan Wheldon on Sunday: "One minute you're joking around in driver intros and the next Dan's gone."

And when a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and former IndyCar champion perishes in a racing accident, the obvious question arises: How could it happen?

There were at least five factors that played a role in Wheldon's death in a horrific 15-car pile-up during the IndyCar season finale at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

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1. Speed

Several drivers worried prior to the race about the speeds attained in practice at the track. At 220 miles an hour (355 kilometres an hour), a car travels the length of a football field every second and the highway two-second separation rule simply does not apply. Yes, racing drivers have exceptionally fast reactions to events that unfold in front of them, but they cannot break the laws of physics. In the Las Vegas crash, drivers saw the cars spinning ahead but they just could not slow down in time to avoid piling up. At least three cars hit so hard they went airborne.

2. The track

The 1.5-mile tri-oval at Las Vegas, with its 20-degree banked turns, allows IndyCar drivers to run flat out for the entire lap without lifting from the throttle for the corners. This means the drivers are at top speed at all times, something that makes it more difficult to stretch out the field and put some needed space between the cars.

3. Number of cars

The IndyCar season finale field at the speedway had 34 cars, one more than is permitted to start at the longer and wider 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the annual Indy 500. More cars on a tighter track means there's little room to manoeuvre when something goes wrong.

When the first three factors combine on one racetrack and open-wheel cars race close together at high speeds, there is, as Canadian driver James Hinchcliffe put it succinctly, "zero margin for error."

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4. Mechanics of open-wheel cars

Pack racing is common in the NASCAR stock car series, where the fenders and the cars' heavy frames and bodies keep the drivers away from danger. In essence, in a pack racing accident, a stock car transforms into a high speed bumper car that protects the driver; on the other hand, an IndyCar's open wheels make it a missile ready for launch. When front wheels hit rear tires, the rubber grips together and flings the following car up and forward, tossing it into the air. The flat bottoms often catch air, producing a backward somersault effect.

5. Driver experience

While it's hard to say whether the accident would have happened without two rookies coming together is hard to say. Yes, two first-year drivers, Hinchcliffe and Wade Cunningham, made the initial contact that started the chain reaction but it seemed that, given the particular conditions, a big accident was only a matter of time. Franchitti remarked after the crash that he "could see within five laps people were starting to do crazy stuff. I love hard racing, but that to me is not really what it's about."

Bottom line: Could it have been avoided?

Several factors came together to cause the crash and even if they happened again the result would likely not be the same. Wheldon's car hit the wheel of Canadian Paul Tracy's car at just the right angle to fling him into the air and toward the catch fence. The car also missed the safer barrier and hit the fence flat with the top against the links, which looked like it ripped off some or all of the protective roll bar from behind Wheldon's head. Then the car fell to the track upside down, which only made matters worse.

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In many cases, a driver's survival in an accident comes down to pure chance. Three-time Formula One world champion Ayrton Senna was killed in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix not from the impact of hitting a concrete wall at 200 miles an hour, but by a piece of the car's suspension that hit his helmet. A dozen centimetres either way and he would have survived. Apart from the head injury, Senna's body had no other mark on it.

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