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Tuesday, October 16, 2012
Dan Wheldon's impact on IndyCar

By John Oreovicz

Wheldon trophy
A tribute to Dan Wheldon was staged after Dario Franchitti's victory in the 2012 Indianapolis 500.

INDIANAPOLIS -- It's fair to say that the death of Dan Wheldon one year ago during a race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was the most significant loss of a driver the sport of Indy car racing suffered in more than 50 years.

Greg Moore, who died in a wreck at California Speedway in 1999, arguably had a brighter future ahead of him when he perished. But the last Indy car driver who died in action with a similar pedigree to two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Wheldon was Bill Vukovich, way back in 1955.

Much has changed in the world since then, of course. In the 1950s, '60s and '70s, race car driver deaths were, if not accepted, at least an acknowledged part of the sport.

Safety has improved in every form of motorsport since then. Safer cars, safer tracks and a greater emphasis on protective equipment like helmets and fireproof suits have minimized the risk of death in auto racing to the point where many people are convinced that it can no longer happen.

But Wheldon's death during the 2011 Izod IndyCar Series championship finale demonstrated that tragedy remains lurking, waiting for that one small slip that can trigger an unthinkable series of events.

Susie Wheldon
Susie Wheldon and son Sebastian attended an Indy 500 race-week tribute to her late husband, Dan Wheldon.

Anytime a driver dies, reaction is swift and changes are made. When the driver is one of the sport's top stars -- like Wheldon, Dale Earnhardt in NASCAR or Ayrton Senna in Formula One -- the public outcry is that much stronger.

It would be wrong to suggest that Wheldon was a star of the magnitude of Senna or Earnhardt. But Wheldon was the first top-tier racing driver killed in the era of social media, and the ability for people to share their outrage or grief in an instant and widespread fashion via Twitter and/or Facebook led to a massive public outpouring of support for Dan's family and the IndyCar community.

Graphic still pictures and video of the multicar crash that took Wheldon's life were distributed on the Internet, keeping the accident fresh in the minds of many even months after the fact. Wheldon's legacy was honored at the IndyCar State of the Series address in February, at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in the Florida town he called home in March and at the Indianapolis 500 in May.

A full year later, Wheldon's accident still weighs heavily on the minds of his many friends and fans. Which begs the question: What has changed in the IndyCar Series over the past year?

For starters, the basic Dallara Indy car itself is all-new, and it incorporates many safety advances compared to the 2003 model Dallara in which Wheldon was killed. But it's important to note that the design of the car that became known as the DW12 (in honor of Wheldon's role in developing it) was finalized well before the fatal accident.

Far in advance of the events that transpired in Las Vegas, the IndyCar Series had already planned to implement safety-driven changes such as sidepods and rear bumpers that semi-enclose the rear wheels in an effort to prevent cars from getting launched into the air when they make side-to-side contact.

But the biggest change to the cars came in areas that can't be seen. For starters, the new-for-2012 turbocharged engine formula gave INDYCAR the ability to easily tailor horsepower to match the needs of different tracks. The cars were restricted to about 550 horsepower to keep speeds down on flat-out ovals, but increased to about 700 horsepower to make things more challenging for drivers on road and street courses.

In addition, the entire aerodynamic philosophy of the DW12 was different, in a dedicated effort to eliminate the kind of "pack" racing on 1.5-mile ovals that the IndyCar Series had become famous -- or infamous -- for since 1997. Downforce was significantly reduced, making the cars much more difficult to drive on fast ovals, to the point where drivers were actually required to ease off the throttle to negotiate corners rather than just pinning their right foot to the floorboard 100 percent of the time.

Dan Wheldon
Fans paid tribute to Dan Wheldon by wearing signature white sunglasses prior to the start of the May 27 Indianapolis 500.

The level of cooperation between the drivers and the sanctioning body was pretty much unprecedented as a committee made up of Dario Franchitti, Justin Wilson and Tony Kanaan gave the series their recommendations and INDYCAR vice president of technology Will Phillips worked tirelessly to create a package that worked well on every kind of circuit -- from short ovals to speedways to street tracks to natural terrain road courses.

Even so, pack racing remained a legitimate concern to the point where only one 1.5-mile oval -- Texas Motor Speedway -- was on the 2012 IndyCar Series schedule. Las Vegas, where the ultra-smooth pavement and high banking were contributing factors to a level of three-wide pack racing that IndyCar had never seen before Wheldon's accident, was left out of the rotation.

There was some talk that the drivers would boycott the race at Texas if the pack-racing characteristics were not engineered out of the cars. But satisfied by the changes made by INDYCAR, the drivers raced and raced hard in one of the best races of the season.

Ed Carpenter was the only driver who called for a return to pack-style racing at Texas, but by the end of the year, when he won the season finale at Auto Club Speedway in California, IndyCar's only true oval specialist was comfortable with the way the nature of the series' oval racing had changed.

Racing cars can always be made safer, and even throughout 2012, Dallara continued to refine the DW12, making modifications to eliminate the car's tendency to flip up on its left side after making left-side contact with a wall while travelling backward. But the biggest potential advances still involve track safety.

The introduction of the SAFER Barrier -- financed by Tony George during his tenure as the CEO of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and developed by the University of Nebraska -- was by far the biggest safety advance in auto racing in the past 30 years.

With the discovery that Wheldon was killed when his helmet struck an unprotected steel fence post, attention has turned to the development of a more effective way of retaining airborne cars that rise above the protection of the SAFER wall. Some experts maintain that Wheldon would not have survived the impact had the fence posts at Las Vegas been on the back side of the catch fence rather than on the track side, but others insist that the fence design was a major contributing factor to the severity of his injuries. Regardless, a new catch-fence design is likely to be auto racing's next major safety breakthrough.

In the modern era, after all the safety improvements made to tracks and cars over the past few decades, we tend to view race drivers as indestructible. But accidents like the one that killed Dan Wheldon are a sobering reminder than the sport can never be made 100 percent safe.

No matter how often we want to forget.