Dan Wheldon left a legacy that goes well beyond his two Indy 500 wins and the magnetic, engaging personality that made him so very popular. It's called the DW12 and it will endure as the car that propelled IndyCar racing into the next generation.
The Izod IndyCar Series was in desperate need of a new car early in 2011. The previous Dallara had been built for an all-oval series, and then re-engineered for road and street courses when IndyCar began running them in 2005. It lacked the aesthetics, the sleekness and beauty that many wanted, and it was technologically out of date. Upgrades for safety could also be made.
Dallara was awarded the contract to build what the series called the "safety cell," and in early August 2011 it was delivered to Dan Wheldon and Bryan Herta Autosport for testing. Wheldon had won the Indy 500 in May with the Herta team, but it had been the team's only race. He was the ideal choice.
Everything -- engine, transmission, brakes, electronics, aerodynamics, you name it -- was new, and IndyCar put it into Wheldon's hands to develop.
"I've never seen so many people ready to watch me leave the pits on installation laps," Wheldon said of the initial test at Mid-Ohio. "It was quite impressive. It is an honor to have the responsibility of being the test driver. It's a role I take seriously. I've done it before with Honda. I've learned, I'm more experienced and I feel I can give some valuable information to IndyCar."
Wheldon tested the car six times before his death, taking a chassis that had serious issues -- for example, the front-to-rear weight was terribly out of balance -- and transforming it with his recommendations into a car that delivered everything the series needed. It was a remarkable achievement.
"One year ago today, it was the tragic events in Las Vegas that really set everyone back and it was something that still affects a lot of us," IndyCar reigning champion Ryan Hunter-Reay said on Oct. 16, the anniversary of Wheldon's death at the track in Las Vegas. "It was certainly a long offseason of developing the new car, but it was named the DW12 for a good reason. The product we have now is because of Dan's hard work. He knew what he wanted out of the car and the product we had on the track [this season] was the best we've had in decades."
IndyCar's drivers, teams and technical staff; Dallara and its suppliers; and new engine builders -- Chevrolet and Honda -- certainly played key roles in bringing the DW12 to the racetrack. But it was Wheldon who sent them in the right direction.
The long winter of sadness and questions over the future of IndyCar gave way to a season of change in the spring. There were two major concerns going into 2012: would the speeds excite the fans at Indianapolis and produce the kind of racing the world's most famous race has had? And would the new cars be able to stay away from the pack racing -- the kind that sent Wheldon and three other cars airborne at Las Vegas -- and be safer on the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway and 2-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana?
The DW12 proved to be revolutionary for IndyCar. It was the first car built and powered to be adaptable to the diverse courses on which the series races. The 2.2-liter turbocharged engines were adjusted down to about 550 horsepower for ovals and 700 for road courses.
The new car produced a draft unlike before; there was still turbulence, but instead of it taking the front end of the car and pointing it to the outside wall, it sucked the car closer. But passing wasn't automatic. The balance in the car had to be correct, the driver's timing and turn-in point precise.
It was a poignant transition when Helio Castroneves won the 2012 season opener on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., Wheldon's adopted hometown. He stopped at turn 10 to climb the chain-link fence and pat the Dan Wheldon Way sign placed by the city in honor of him. Wheldon made a pass at turn 10 that took him to victory in the first race at St. Petersburg.
"I thought that for everything that had happened, and we all remember Dan Wheldon for what he meant to us, I have to say everything that happened after the accident, everyone handled it well," Castroneves said. "It was a very tough situation. But we worked together -- the drivers, the team owners, the series -- and it became a positive year for the IndyCar series with an incredible end and an American driver winning the championship. What else can you ask for?"
The speeds at Indianapolis were strong. Castroneves was fastest in practice at 227.744 mph, Ryan Briscoe took the pole at 226.484 and Marco Andretti had the fastest race lap at 220.172. It was plenty fast.
There were a record 34 lead changes by 10 drivers. Dario Franchitti passed Chip Ganassi teammate Scott Dixon on the next-to-last lap and Rahal's Takuma Sato turned too soon into turn one trying to pass Franchitti and spun into the outside wall, ending the race.
"The 500 was interesting on the straightaways with four or five cars battling for position," 10th-finishing Castroneves said. "It's why I liked it. We had to drive the car. It was not flat out. It was a very long 500."
There was talk of a driver boycott prior to Texas, a sister track to Las Vegas, but the series listened to the drivers and teams and came up with an aerodynamic adjustment that separated the cars by making them more difficult to drive.
"We tried something new, took downforce off, and I thought it was great," Hunter-Reay said. "It was a reaction to the pack racing at Las Vegas and the fans absolutely loved it. Hear we are on those superspeedways doing 220 miles per hour and we had to [lift off the throttle] to drive in the corners. I thought that was great.
"We were very strong in our opinion with what kind of racing we wanted to see. We wanted to be lifting on the superspeedways and feel the car moving around a lot. The drivers are very proud of what the series has done with the cars on superspeedways and to do it with a first-year car was pretty amazing."
The IndyCars quit going airborne in 2012. There was only one incident, when Andretti flew after contact with Graham Rahal's car at Long Beach. Neither driver was injured.
"The safety we had was more a product of the racing we had," Hunter-Reay said. "This car hasn't been put to the test racing wise. We haven't had any cars flying. When it comes down to it, the head is still exposed to a flying tire, a piece of suspension, a post at 200 miles per hour. IndyCar is one of the most dangerous forms of racing and it always will be."
There were fewer crashes in 2012. The street/road course races at Edmonton and Mid-Ohio didn't have a full-course caution.
"I thought the drivers were able to respect each other this year because most of the decisions we were making together," Castroneves said.
Bobby Rahal, team owner and 1986 Indy 500 winner, thinks the safety innovations contributed to the increased safety of the DW12.
"The racing this year, you could pass better than in the past," Rahal said. "The reductions in down force on the big ovals made for pretty exciting races and the drivers really loved it. They really had to drive the car and we didn't have that idiotic pack racing. When you're all running on top of each other, it doesn't take much to have an incident."
There were other significant changes to IndyCar in 2012: race director Beau Barfield was generally given high marks for good decisions, the influx of full-time American drivers to seven undoubtedly sold tickets, and Chevrolet and Honda delivered engines that are going to get more reliable and powerful.
But the major step forward was the DW12, a car that looked good, drove better and saved the ability to go to tracks like Texas and Fontana. Sadly, it was the final contribution that Dan Wheldon made to the sport he loved.