February 02, 2012

Dario Franchitti wept not of joy, but of inconsolable despair on the day he won his third consecutive IndyCar championship. For the second time in his 14 years at the highest echelons of North American open-wheel racing, a close friend had died at the same track on which both were racing. This time it was former teammate Dan Wheldon, who died a dozen laps into the race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Oct. 16, 2011. Twelve years earlier it was Greg Moore.

Every death of a driver resonates in the paddock. But on the drivers move, shutting out nagging thoughts that may cast doubt on their ability to find the space between control and chaos, where the best drivers dwell. This one was different, yet all too familiar.

But life goes on. Career goes on. And the helmet has gone back on numerous times since and will again as he prepares to move on, move forward again. Franchitti spoke recently with SI.com's Brant James about the ever-elusive state of safety in an inherently unsafe profession.

Danger, it's not something that is in the front of your mind. It's certainly not in the front of my mind. It's certainly something I was aware of from the first time I sat in a car or certainly from the first time I had an accident in a car. There are reminders of that when people close to you are hurt or you hurt yourself, or worst-case, obviously, when you lose somebody like we lost Greg or we lost Dan. I bring those guys up because I was very close to both of them. It's in the back of your mind. I think it sometimes shows you where the limit is. You're not thinking about it consciously. It's in the back of your mind, and you accept that. You either accept it or you don't do the job. And you're always trying, the series is always trying, to make it as safe as it possibly can be, but you understand it can't be 100 percent safe.

Safety is something that's ongoing. Each year we try to improve it, whether it's head surround or seats or seat belts or seat position in the car. They're not standing still, the IndyCar Series. The FIA [Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile] are also getting heavily involved in it. The manufacturers, I think are trying. It's an ongoing thing. Particularly after Dan's accident, the series has taken another look at itself and redoubled its effort. That's something we're in the middle of right now. We've not seen the results of any of that stuff yet. We've talked to drivers, talked to team owners, talked to everyone trying to improve things.

Obviously, there's a lot of discussion about the fencing right now. I think a big advance was the SAFER barrier. That was something that IndyCar funded and came up with, along with the guys up at the University of Nebraska, although NASCAR will try to take some credit for it sometimes. That was an IndyCar thing, and I'm happy that any series that races on an oval has the advantage of it, regardless of who came up with it. That's something, NASCAR, IndyCar, whoever -- we're pushing in the same direction. We're all in the same boat together.

Dr. Terry Trammell, an orthopedic surgeon who has rebuilt the bodies and careers of numerous drivers and been among the vanguard of motorsports safety advocates, told SI.com in a December story that IndyCar squandered a chance to make the new car -- set to debut in 2012, bearing the name of Wheldon , its primary test driver -- safer by rushing its timetable for deployment.

I'm not going to disagree with Terry. He's one of the guys who talks about safety moving on all the time. He's one of the people who has worked on it, year after year, for, I don't know, the last 30 years. That's his field of expertise. He's a guy I owe a tremendous amount to, the fact I am still racing, the work he did for me, on my spine. If Terry said that the new car could be safer, that's good enough for me.

There's obviously the two sides to it. They have to start working on the new car at some point to get ready for the start of the season, and safety is ongoing, but, you know, I was a little surprised with some of the new pieces in the new car. There're a couple areas I thought, "Wow, that's not much of a step forward from the old car." There are definitely some areas that are better with all the foam around the cockpit, energy absorbing foam, and the fact you sit on that stuff. But that stuff Terry and I talked about two or three years ago wasn't incorporated, and that was a little bit of a surprise.

They are definitely taking some of the suggestions now from the teams and the drivers. That's been helpful. To be honest, it would have been a lot easier had they actually talked to anybody before they built the car. That would have been the way. Talk to the teams, talk to the drivers. Ask them what they need, what we would like. Talk to the guys like Dr. Trammell. Dallara or any of the manufacturers who were bidding for it, I would have thought if I was building a car, one of my first ports of call would be to sort of canvass the teams and the drivers and the safety people around to talk about their wants and needs and go from there. But it didn't happen, so we're kind of trying to fix it now.

Franchitti was involved in his first major racing crash in 2000, when a part broke on the Team Green CART series car he was testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He broke his pelvis and sustained a concussion that took him two seasons to overcome. His next major brush with mortality -- and extreme pain and bull-headedness -- came when a part failed on a high-end motorcycle during a ride through the Scottish countryside in 2003. His spine required a recalibration and numerous pins to repair.

There were two elements to that 2000 crash as far as injuries. Basically, what happened was the right rear spindle broke in the car turning into one of the corners at Homestead and the right rear wheel came off as a result. I broke my pelvis in three places. That was bad enough. It was painful, especially trying to get out of the car afterward. It's a difficult one to heal from because even as you lie in bed at night, you can't roll over. A real pain, that one. So that was one area. But I was back in the car three weeks later.

I managed to sort of go do some rehab with a friend of mine in Austria, and three weeks later I was back in the car. I definitely suffered some stiffness from that, quite a lot of pain in the car, but that was one area. The biggest problem was the head injury. I actually hit my head against the concrete wall. I missed the headrest on the car and hit the wall. It was a pretty massive head injury. Quite honestly, looking back on it, it took me a couple years to get over that. That one sucked. That one was a problem.

I was diagnosed with a concussion. I was very lucky from the fact I was in Miami and Dr. Steve Olvey, former CART medical director, he was on duty at his hospital and he ended up looking after me. I was in good hands there.

In 2003, my brother, Marino, had just gotten a new bike. I'd just gotten a new bike too, and we were out just riding around on the outskirts of Edinburgh. It was an Italian bike, MV Agusta.

The crash was caused by mechanical failure on the bike, so it came as somewhat of a surprise. I guess most accidents come as somewhat of a surprise. I remember lying in the field I ended up in and my brother was with me. He'd been riding a bike, too. I knew it wasn't good. I think the first thing I did, was I told Marino "Call Ashley (Judd, Dario's wife) and then call my agent. Tell him what was going on." I knew it wasn't good. My spine was making some funny noises. There was some crunching going on back there. I didn't really move until the ambulance came and took me out of the field.

It was kind of a long process because, first, I was in Scotland when the accident happened and it was kind of misdiagnosed in Scotland. I missed the Japan IndyCar race and I came over to Indianapolis with the hope of racing in the Indianapolis 500. So I got to the hospital, and actually Tony Kanaan was in there because he'd had a crash in Japan that week. I saw Dr. Trammell and he told me it was a lot worse than had been diagnosed in Scotland and there were all kinds of complications with it, and basically I wouldn't be allowed to drive.

He wanted to give 10 weeks to see if the injury settled on its own. We had a conversation and it was kind of me hearing what I wanted to hear. He said it was as good as it's ever going to get. I took that to mean I could go racing, so I went to race at Pike's Peak. I got a call from him on Monday morning saying "No, no. You misunderstood here. If you want to drive a racing car again, you need to have surgery."

And so I eventually took a month off to do a bunch of things I wanted to do and I was kind of in pain the whole time, actually. Dr. Trammell did the surgery, and touch wood, since that day it's just been great. All in all, I think I had the accident in April and I was back in the car the first week in January in 2004.

I think I must have been about 11 or so when I hit something hard for the first time, in karts. It's not a fun part of the job.

With accidents, it's something, for me, I accept it as part of the job, as a possibility it might happen. You try and avoid them at all costs, but sometimes it happens and you deal with it. In some ways, for me, it's easier when it happens to me rather than to somebody else, if that makes sense. You just get on with it, if there's any injury. You get on with recovery. If not, you brush yourself off and get back in the car. Obviously, the far extreme is what happened to Greg and to Dan and that, for me, is when it becomes a big problem.

If you're going to take the idea that parts can end a career or life, you wouldn't get in an airplane, you wouldn't get in a street car. What we do, obviously we're taking the cars to the absolute limit of what they're capable of, but we've got these teams of mechanics you have to have absolute trust in. And I do. Whether it was Andretti Green or Team Green before that, the guys certainly now on the Target team, you have total trust in these guys. And I do. You just get on with it.

I think it's a very difficult thing for a drivers' family. It's a very selfish thing that we do. I'm lucky to have the support of my wife and the rest of my family. My brother races, my cousin races and I sometimes struggle watching them. It's easier if I'm doing the racing.

IndyCar's internal investigation into the 15-car crash that sent Dan Wheldon headlong into a catch-fence post cited numerous independent variables that collaborated in tragedy. Prior to the investigation, several drivers, including Franchitti, warned of the dangers inherent at the high-banked, high-speed, 1.5-mile oval because of the prospects of full-throttle mania and unyielding pack racing. Even into the offseason Franchitti struggled with remembering the championship day. The recollection of it, he says, "is a very painful thing to remember and it's something, as well, that is very much a private matter, so I'll just keep those moments to myself."

I read some of the Wheldon report and some of it I just couldn't read. I read some of it. It's something I felt I had to do. ...

I was very glad that they came out and made it very clear it wasn't Dan's fault or any other driver's fault. Obviously, it wasn't Dan's fault. Dan is one of, if not the best, one-and-a-half-mile drivers out there. There was certainly a lot of circumstances out of his control. What happened with Vegas for me ... Vegas is not a bad track. IndyCars are not dangerous. The combination of the two didn't work. For me, that was the problem.

The high banks and the amount of grip that track produces, everything was taken out of the driver's control. You weren't even in control of your own destiny, almost. You were a passenger, to a degree. There was no separation and you could run three- and four-wide and that was because of the car performance coupled with the track.

What we want as drivers is to be in control of our own destiny. We want to be in control of the risks that we take. We don't want to have other people in front of us be in an accident and us get caught up in it. Some of that is always going to happen, but something like Vegas, I felt, and the drivers I spoke with felt like we had no control over it. It's something that they need to continue to work on to put the control in the driver's hands. It's something we've got to continue to find ways to put that control back in our hands, if it's Texas or Fontana. If we can't, we shouldn't be racing at those places.

I think some mistakes were made by IndyCar. I do think some mistakes were made. The drivers definitely, and I was one of them, told them they didn't think it was correct we did that on that track based on the testing, and IndyCar was happy with the results of that test and that's why they went ahead with it. That's what they based everything on. I think as a series, certainly, they would not have put us in a dangerous position if they felt that was going to happen, but, I think mistakes were made.

In 2005, in the first installment of the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Wheldon -- en route to his only league title -- claimed the victory in his adopted hometown, followed in order by then Andretti Green teammates Kanaan, Franchitti and Bryan Herta, who as a team-owner fielded Wheldon's Indianapolis 500-winning car last May.

That's a good memory. ... Bizarre. ... In July I was sorting out some old pictures in Scotland and I sent like 50 pictures to the framer, and one of those was the picture with the four of us on the podium. ... The only person that signed it was Dan. I opened up the packet in the first week of December and I was just like, Oh ... my ... wow. I handed it to my wife and said, "Look at that."

And we stuck it right up on the wall in the office. That was a great memory.

That fateful day at Las Vegas marked the conclusion of the 2011 IndyCar season. The series won't race again until March 25, 2012, when it kicks off its 2012 season in St. Petersburg, Fla., Wheldon's adopted hometown.

I think those feelings are with you regardless if you're at the track or you're at home, or whatever the hell you're doing. Those feelings are there. For driver and fellow former Wheldon teammate Tony Kanaan and I, for instance, we were in the car a week later working on the new car, so there wasn't any time to sit and think too much. It was pretty much back to it, and I worked pretty hard the month of November and had December off, whereas Franchitti's Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon had November off and then he was absolutely flat out in December. I think we all deal with these things in different ways, but we're all pretty busy.

The real difficult thing is going to be when we show up in St. Pete and we think ... "He's not here."

It's his hometown. It's the race he's won. All those things. That's going to be a tough one. No doubt, a tough one.

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