This past weekend, racecar driver Dan Weldon died during a race at the Las Vegas Motorspeedway. The British driver and two-time Indy 500 winner died when he hit a car that had spun in front of him, launching his car high into the air and into a fence. The thirty-three year old left behind a wife and two children. As a Chicago personal injury lawyer and amateur racecar driver, I am distinctly affected by Weldon's death.
Ten years ago, NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt died in a crash when his car hit a wall at the Daytona International Speedway. Earnhardt's death brought a number of important safety improvements to racing. These improvements include mandatory head-and-neck restraint systems, energy absorbing SAFER barriers at all oval tracks, and safer racecars. As with Earnhardt's death, I hope Weldon's death will also spur significant safety improvements.
Ironically, Weldon was a key figure in testing a new Indy car designed to improve safety on the track next season. One of the key safety features Weldon and others were testing was a bodywork covering the rear wheels that would prevent cars from launching into the air as Weldon's car did in Las Vega on Sunday. In fact, there are several factors that may have caused or contributed to Weldon's death. The purpose of this article, however, is not assign blame. Instead, I wish to focus on what factors seemed to have caused or contributed Weldon's death and what safety measures should be considered to avoid similar tragedies in the future.
How did Weldon die? According to the Coroner's office, Weldon died from blunt trauma to the head. The blunt force trauma was most likely Weldon flying airborne into the safety fence at nearly 200 MPH. Based on video of the crash, it appears Weldon's car launched into the air after his right front wheel struck the left rear wheel of a vehicle in front of him. There have been a number of dramatic accidents like this in open-wheel racing. Unlike closed-wheel racecars, open-wheel racecars have their wheels outside of the main body of the car. When one open-wheel car runs up the back of another open-wheel car, this can cause the rear vehicle to launch dangerously into the air. Open wheel purists would almost certainly reject any notion of putting bodywork covering the rear wheels of open-wheel cars. However, this bodywork is an important safety feature that should be considered and which may have prevented Weldon's death. The fact Weldon was helping develop this feature to improve the safety of future racecars is eerily prophetic.
Dr. Dean Sicking is the director of the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility at the University of Nebraska who helped develop SAFER barriers implemented since Earnhardt's death. Regarding Weldon's death, Dr. Sicking has stated he has not seen enough evidence to determine what role the catch fence, located above the SAFER barriers, may have played in Weldon's death. However, he did state that safety improvements to the catch fence is one area that is next in line to be addressed (along with improvements to pit road entrances). Traditionally, the safety fence has been designed more to prevent injuries to spectators on the other side rather than injuries to drivers crashing into the fence. With Weldon's death from blunt force trauma to the head, no doubt close attention will be paid to what role the safety fence may have played in his death. Assuming the fence was factor, immediate efforts should be made to improve the safety of these catch fences for drivers.
There are several other factors that may have caused or contributed to Weldon's death. Many have criticized the extreme speeds these open-wheel cars are now allowed to travel on oval tracks surrounded by walls and fencing. Some have criticized the large number of cars that were allowed to compete in the Las Vegas race (at 34), creating tighter quarters for drivers and less room for error. Others have criticized the high degree of banking at the Las Vegas Speedway and other oval tracks allowing for extreme speed in corners, increasing the risk of hard hits into the wall or fence when a car suddenly losing traction at high speed.
There were a number of important safety measures implemented in auto racing since Earnhardt's death ten years ago. There is every reason to believe important improvements can be made in the years to come. With the tragic passing of Dan Weldon, we can only hope these improvements will now come even sooner.
Posted by: Personal Injury Lawyer Jason M. Kroot
CNN Website, Weldon's Death A Watershed Moment For IndyCar?, October 17, 2011
Wikipedia, Death Of Dale Earnhardt, October 18, 2011
ESPN Website, Designer: Too Early To Blame Fence, October 18, 2011
NPR Website, Analyst Point To Several Factors In Weldon Death, October 18, 2011
USA Today Website, Dan Weldon Had Been Helping IndyCar With Safety For 2012, October 16, 2011