The IZOD IndyCar Series will return to the track on Sunday for the first time since Dan Wheldon died at the IndyCar finale on Oct. 16, 2011. The events of that tragic day put a greater emphasis on safety in auto racing, and INDYCAR officials hope they will return to competition with a safer sport.
Wheldon, 33, was killed in a horrific 15-car crash 11 laps in to the last race of the 2011 IndyCar season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Ultimately, it was concluded that Wheldon had succumbed to "non-survivable" injuries when his head hit a pole in the fencing.
In the immediate aftermath, the accident prompted a dialogue between drivers and INDYCAR officials on how they could make an inherently dangerous sport safer.
"It's a big improvement because before this it [safety] wasn't even talked about, and now we are trying to make it better," said 2004 IndyCar Series champion Tony Kanaan.
One of the biggest changes this season will be the introduction of the new Dallara Indy car, which will debut Sunday at St. Petersburg. Ironically, Wheldon was the first test driver of the new Dallara and because of his tireless work behind the wheel in the initial phase of testing the new car has been rebranded in his honor as the DW12.
Team owner Michael Andretti is quick to point out, however, that many of the safety improvements in the new car -- including innovations to protect the driver in the cockpit and additional body work that INDYCAR officials hope will prevent wheel-to-wheel contact -- were already in development prior to Wheldon's death.
"I think our sport has always been looking at that," said Andretti, who teamed up with Wheldon to win both the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar Series championship in 2005. "I don't think we have ever stopped and I don't think with what happened to Dan we are doing more because we already were doing a lot. The new car was part of that and designed to be safer. That was before what happened to Dan. This sport has always been proactive and it will always be that way."
Dario Franchitti was one of Wheldon's closest friends, stemming from their days as teammates at Andretti Autosport. He believes the series has made progress but that there is still work to do.
"I think the safety aspect is very, very important," said Franchitti, who has won the IndyCar driver's championship the past three years and is a four-time series champion and two-time Indianapolis 500 winner. "The new car will address some of those issues and there are a lot more of those issues to work on. The drivers are pushing INDYCAR very, very hard. We've been getting a lot of help from INDYCAR and a lot of response as well as most of the promoters as well. There is still work to be done, but we are moving in the right direction.
Inside the car, several improvements have been made to the driver's cockpit, including changes to the seat itself, the seat back and the headrest. These adjustments should better protect the drivers and prevent a situation that happened last year when driver Justin Wilson suffered a cracked vertebra after his car drove off course and went for a bumpy ride in practice at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Wilson missed the remainder of that season but returns to the series this weekend on the streets of St. Petersburg. Will Power suffered a similar injury when his car was launched into the air during the 15-car pileup that fatally injured Wheldon at Las Vegas.
"It's a new car [and] a new year with a lot of safety improvements," Kanaan said. "Is it going to be 100 percent safe? Of course not, but we are making it better. I feel comfortable with the new car and some of the changes that are going to be made with the race tracks. That is where we stand. How safe is it going to be? I don't think we will know until something happens again, which we hope doesn't happen."
Drivers have also called into question pack racing on high-banked oval tracks, the style which occurred at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and even the makeup of specific tracks. The latter has led to a fierce war of words between Texas Motor Speedway president and general manager Eddie Gossage and the IndyCar Series drivers. Earlier this month there were rumors that the drivers would call for a boycott of the June Texas race over the design of the fence at that track and the other Speedway Motorsports Incorporated (SMI) facilities, where the poles are actually constructed facing the track rather than facing the grandstands. Drivers eventually dismissed those rumors as overblown.
"What we need to do is not have pack racing," Kanaan said. "Eddie has been very vocal about it and he has a right to defend his track and we aren't blaming his track. But as he said, his engineers believe that is the right way to construct the fence and all we want to do is have him show us [why it's the right way].
"The bottom line is we will go race in Texas. It's a good market. We're not those types of people."
The debate and dialogue continues and that's important because it could eventually lead to an even better idea on how to make IndyCar safer.
"Whenever you have a serious accident you stop and think for a few minutes but then you realize what you want to do is continue to contribute by finding ways for the car to be safer," said Mike Hull, managing director of Target/Chip Ganassi Racing. "Certainly what happened with Dan was a call to action. If people don't understand that it's time to make everything we do safer when that happens, it's time to look at ourselves, look at what we do ... We need to find new ways to improve."
Hull pointed out that a similar call to action followed the death of seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, who as killed in the 2001 Daytona 500. Following the legend's death, the first SAFER Barrier was installed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in time for the 2001 Indianapolis 500. Since then, the barrier has been installed at all big-time tracks in NASCAR, IndyCar and Formula 1.
"We can only make the cars so safe. You have to work to reduce the impact above the SAFER Barrier. Open-wheel racing is not the only sanctioning body cars that have hit above the barrier. There has to be something out there in the world that can work on finding a way to improve that. It needs to be initiated."
Hull doesn't believe any one track should be singled out from a safety perspective."
All oval race tracks need to look at how to improve the safety above the soft walls -- not just SMI," Hull said. "I don't think it's fair to single out SMI; I think it's important to call everybody together and figure out how to make it better for everybody. You have to look at the bigger picture. The fans need to see what is going on; TV needs to see what is going on and we need the drivers to come back next week. The investment is for the future of motor racing; not just open-wheel racing and that is the most important thing."
Another notable alteration to the new Dallara DW-12 is the addition of rear bumpers intended to prevent wheels from interlocking during a race. Not everyone is convinced they'll work, though.
"I think those things are going to break off and snap off in an instant anyway, so I don't think they will do what they are intended," driver Graham Rahal said. "It's a good idea but they are not strong enough in my eyes. We'll see after they get hit a few times. I guarantee they will get hit a few times on this street course, so we will find out.
"Safety-wise I think the biggest gains are within the cockpit in the car."
Will Phillips, the vice president of technology for INDYCAR, played a key role in the development and testing of the new car. He stressed that there are many potential scenarios of on-track contact that cannot be eliminated and no one really knows what may happen until those occur. But the probability ratios have been decreased with some of the improvements of the new car.
"In terms of the simple ones, if you like side-by-side, the fact that the underwing and bodywork comes out just half an inch wider than the wheels, in the simple side-by-side scenario, running down to a brake zone, if they do touch, the less likely they are to have wheel-to-wheel contact," Phillips explained. "That's our intention with it, not having cars leave the ground. We haven't had any yet car-to-car contact. It should be able to withstand a reasonable amount, but it's not built to be a bumper, it's built to prevent contact from touching the wheels. We don't know how heavy a contact they'll be able to sustain."
There is no question that INDYCAR has done a tremendous amount of work to make the sport safer but only time will tell if those changes will work. After all, in any sport where men strap themselves into racing machines traveling at a high rate of speed, there will always be an element of danger.
"Our car and our series will never be 100 percent safe," Andretti said. "Everybody is kidding themselves if they think it's going that way. We can only strive to make things better, but it will never be 100 percent perfect."