IndyCar drivers want their voices heard in wake of Wheldon's death
SEBRING, Fla. -- The angst manifests itself in their hands, in the way Will Power gestures downward with his fist as if pounding on a lectern, in the way Marco Andretti draws his thumb and index finger together to visually punctuate the end of a pointed statement.
Three months after former IndyCar champion and two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon died in a 15-car crash in the final race of the season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and just more than two months before they begin their 2012 schedule, drivers remain frustrated with the circumstances that led to their friend and colleague's death at 33.
Much of the frustration stems from their belief that the ability to steer away from the Oct. 16 maelstrom has been taken out of their hands.
The internal investigation into Wheldon's death concluded myriad independent factors created a so-called "perfect storm" that led to Wheldon's car going airborne and cockpit-first into a catch fence post during a 15-car melee just 11 laps after the green flag. Catch fences, the ruthless steel cable and mesh barriers designed to keep debris inside the track and away from fans, remain a priority of safety innovators, but it's a tricky fix given current technology. The greatest potential immediate advance, said driver Helio Castroneves, is a greater willingness by management to heed labor's concerns.
Because at Las Vegas, drivers had many concerns. They had them as far back as the spring, when Andretti and others presciently forecasted the pack racing conditions considered one of the key variables in the fatal accident. They had them, four-time series champion Dario Franchitti said, after the series conducted a test and deemed the high-banked, freshly paved 1.5-mile track a suitable venue for league CEO Randy Bernard's year-end showcase.
"The variable was Vegas. Period," Andretti said. "I'm not going to sit here and talk about poles on the race track. ... It's the racetrack we were at. It's a situation we were put in, unfortunately. I was screaming it before the race, we shouldn't have been there, and guys tested there and said we shouldn't have been there."
"It just makes me mad," said Power, who injured his back going airborne during the crash. "It just should never have happened. The best people to listen to are the drivers, because we're out there and we have a great understanding of what goes on in the car because we're in the car. We love the sport, we love what we do and if we're saying it's bad, and we don't want to do it, it's bad.
"Why should the guy outside the car have an opinion on that? He doesn't know. He doesn't. As drivers, we've been talking about [the dangers of high-banked ovals] for years."
Castroneves said he thinks now someone will be listening. He believes Bernard, entering his third year in charge, will rely less on the circle of advisors with which the former head of the Professional Bull Riders has surrounded himself.
"I think Randy now gives us more credit when we say something and team owners say another," Castroneves said. "The whole  season Randy was like, 'double-file restart at Indianapolis', for example. It was changed because the drivers were [angered by it]. Then, we said a lot of other things that unfortunately were never changed. So I think now we said it, [the Las Vegas crash] happened, OK. We already sat down with Randy and already talked about what they can do to not have that scenario happen again. When you put all those things together, I feel Randy is going to be much better this year calling some shots, and team owners will also listen a little bit, and I think it will be better for everyone."
Bernard said he will continue to rely on the counsel of a trusted group of advisors, but that he had taken steps to increase dialogue with drivers and teams through additional meetings between the series and team engineers and managers.
"I think Helio is definitely right on that," Bernard said of expanded communication. "If there's one thing I've learned in this process, [it's] that the drivers probably trust their engineers more than they do anyone else. So we decided we're going to have, hopefully, much more communication with our team. That's not to say everyone is going to get their way, because that's impossible."
The purpose of the additional engineering meeting, Bernard said, "is two-fold: to talk about safety, technology and how we move the sport to the next level.
"Last year we had team owners' meetings and we had drivers' meetings and some were very productive and some of them weren't," he said. "The team managers' meeting, we think these will be very productive because team managers have a very good pulse of what the team owners want and a good pulse of what the drivers want. We'll have that prior to the team owners' meeting, so when we have the team owners' meeting we hope that we can see productivity, where we're not just arguing about certain elements, [where] we go in with an agenda, where some of it has already been talked about in the team managers' meeting and the owners have already been briefed."
Bernard said the series continues to address a "list of short-term, medium-term and long-term goals that the drivers wanted us to work on, and that list [collated in a meeting in Indianapolis the week after Wheldon's death] we've taken to heart." Among concerns, he said, was a standardization of yellow caution lights in cockpits and surround head mounts and seat positioning in the new DW12 car, which was named after the car's main test driver, Wheldon.
"It's all very positive," Bernard said. "Now, do all the drivers hear about it? They clearly told us that Tony Kanaan, Justin Wilson and Dario Franchitti were their leaders, and that's who I communicate with. I have had several meetings with those three. I believe IndyCar is working very hard to make sure a lot of positive comes out of this negative."
Drivers left that meeting with Bernard and series officials in October collectively supporting the series. If there was angry discourse during the meeting, they are loathe to discuss it.
"I don't want to be the one to say it, so ...," Power tapered off. "That was a productive meeting though. It wasn't an I-told-you-so [meeting]."
Drivers also refuse to assess blame, although Franchitti told SI.com that "mistakes were made." A key part of drivers' thinking remains their willingness to compete despite the knowledge of dangers they felt were beyond reasonable.
"I'm not going to sit here and say bad things about the league," Andretti said. "We all took the green flag, so we all knew the risks that we were taking. We do every time we get in the race car. If it was me in the fence, I would have said, 'Race on, guys.' I can see Dan saying the same thing. But I definitely took that one really hard. It was more my sadness turned to anger pretty quick."
Andretti's father and team-owner, Michael, who had re-signed Wheldon to rejoin his team in 2012, said no matter the emotions or advancements a death inspires, the sport remains perilous.
"This is a dangerous sport, and it will never be 100-percent safe," said Andretti, who won a combined 50 CART and IndyCar races. "And I can guarantee you in the next 10 years we're going to lose somebody else. You can't be going these speeds around these places. I'm talking about here [at the Sebring road course]. It can happen.
"Dan knew what he was getting into when he sat himself in the car, and he'd be really pissed if life didn't go on after him, because we all know when we strap ourselves in, that is our risk."