Keeping Score

Ominous Signs: Track Conditions Questioned Before Wheldon’s Death

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Drivers complete five memorial laps in honor of Dan Wheldon at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway

One of the saddest, most jarring aspects of the 15-car accident that took the life of reigning Indy 500 champ Dan Wheldon on Sunday: before the race, some drivers saw bad things coming.

Remarks on IndyCar’s own website, posted on Oct. 16, were particularly ominous. An article said the season finale at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway “could be the wildest race of the season.” The story, headlined “Hot Spots on hot Las Vegas Track,” noted that “while a hot spot is generally one portion of the racetrack, at Las Vegas it’s the entire race course.” Said James Hincliffe, a rookie driver: “The hot spot is every inch of the 1.5 miles. It’s such a grippy track. A place like Kentucky there are bumps and the cars move around a little bit. Here, they aren’t doing that and we are race car drivers and will take every inch that we are given and you have just eliminated all the margin. The racing is so close and when something goes wrong it can really go wrong.”

Another driver, Ryan Hunter-Reay, echoed Hincliffe’s observation. “Hot spots here are every corner, every lap the whole time,” he said. “All it takes is one mistake by one driver and it could be huge consequences. This should be a nail-biter for the fans and it’s going to be insane for the drivers.”

(PHOTOS: Dan Wheldon Dies in Fiery Crash)

Among the other more pointed remarks by drivers, before and after the accident:

“More than any other track we go to, this track is like an engine dyno,” said Will Power on IndyCar.com. Power’s car, like Wheldon’s, went airborne during the crash (Power complained of upper back pain after the accident, but was released from a hospital Sunday night). “I’ll have to have a mistake-free day,” Power said. “The action will be everywhere. It’s going to be a very tightly-packed race, more than any one we’ve done over the years.”

“You can run anywhere,” said Paul Tracy on IndyCar.com. “You can run against the wall,” said Tracy. “You are going to see 3 1/2 wide racing here. It’s going to be a wild race  … There is the potential for a big wreck so we hope to stay out of that.”

“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,” Oriol Servia said after the race, in a statement. “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. We knew it could happen, but it’s just really sad.”

“It was just a chain reaction, and everybody slowed down, got bunched up again and there were more crashes that started behind it,” said Scott Dixon, who won the 2008 Indy 500, after the race, according to SI.com. “It’s unfortunate because everybody knew it was going to happen. You could see from Lap 2 people were driving nuts. It doesn’t even matter the speeds — you can’t touch with these cars.”

“We have too much grip for these cars because it’s just too easy,” said Ryan Briscoe before the race, on IndyCar.com. “It’s going to be a wild race and it will be fractions of inches apart from each other the whole race. It’s going to be very intense.” Afterwards, Briscoe said on SI.com: “It was like driving through a war zone. We all predicted something like this would happen. It was inevitable. … These open-wheel cars, there is no room for error.”

In 2007, the Las Vegas Motor Speedway changed the banking of its turns, from 12 degrees to 20 degrees, which increased speeds on the track. As The St. Petersburg Times pointed out, in 2000 — the last time IndyCar raced in Las Vegas — Mark Dismore won the pole with a speed of 208.5 mph. This year, Tony Kanaan’s pole speed was 222 mph.

Also, the drivers said the surface is particularly smooth, which gives them more confidence to “go flat” – in other words, floor the accelerator. The track is also wide, inviting cars to race side-by-side, “three-wide and four-wide.” When cars are racing in close quarters, at high-speeds, any slip-up can put many drivers at risk.

On Sunday, the chaos unfolded after the cars of Hinchcliffe and Wade Cunningham made slight contact.  The field of 34 drivers was the largest of the IndyCar season. The Indianapolis 500 has 33 drivers, but they are spread out on a 2.5 mile track. The Las Vegas Motor Speedway is 1.5 miles long. The large field, and shorter track, inevitably leads to more crowding.

Dario Franchitti, who clinched his fourth IndyCar title on Sunday, cried uncontrollably before he and fellow drivers saluted Wheldon by driving five-laps around the Las Vegas track. Franchitti said on SI.com: “You know I love hard racing, but that to me is not really what it’s about. I said before we even tested here that this was not a suitable track for us, and we’ve seen it today. You can’t get away from anybody. There’s no way to differentiate yourself as a car or a driver. People get frustrated and go four-wide and you saw that happened.”

NewsFeed offered IndyCar officials and the Las Vegas Motor Speedway a chance to respond to the comments from drivers.  An IndyCar spokesperson said no officials are available to comment at this time. The Las Vegas Motor Speedway deferred comment to IndyCar.

Sean Gregory is a staff writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @seanmgregory. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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