IndyCar drivers foresee safer sport in 2012

Published February 14, 2012

| Associated Press

With IndyCar still recovering from Dan Wheldon's death, series officials said Tuesday that double-file restarts will be scrapped at Indianapolis, Texas and Fontana and more changes to improve safety could be announced before next month's season-opener at St. Petersburg.

"Oh yeah, there will be lots more to come," IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard said after the two-day state of the series summit wrapped up in Indianapolis.

Bernard didn't provide hints about what other announcements are pending.

It's all part of a plan to make courses safer and revamp IndyCar's image after Wheldon, a two-time Indy 500 winner, was killed in an accident at last year's season-finale in Las Vegas. The wreck pushed safety issues to the forefront of racing and gave the drivers who risk their lives more latitude in framing complaints.

Plenty of changes have already been made.

The series is introducing its first redesigned car in nine years, a model that is being deemed IndyCar's safest yet. Driver seats will be surrounded by three inches of foam in the cockpit, an inch of foam underneath the seat and a panel on the right side of the cockpit to help reduce the force when hitting outside walls. Wheldon, who did most of the early testing, spoke glowingly about the new safety features.

Series officials are hoping the addition of rear-wheel pods will eliminate the wheel-to-wheel contact that can send cars airborne, too.

The 16-race schedule includes only five oval races, down from eight of 17 last year, a move many racers have embraced since Wheldon's crash, though Bernard said that decision was more about marketability than safety with the obvious exception of Las Vegas.

New race director Beaux Barfield, who replaces Brian Barnhart in race control, made his decision on the restarts after talking directly with the drivers.

"I could look into their eyes and see very legitimate concerns," he said.

When Bernard brought the double-file restarts, a popular NASCAR feature, to the IndyCar circuit last season, those with stock car experience such as three-time defending champ Dario Franchitti and Danica Patrick balked immediately about the dangers it would pose.

Bernard responded by instructing his drivers, which the series calls the world's most versatile, to make it work. After a dubious start in St. Petersburg, they did.

Barfield said he made his decision for two reasons: where the acceleration point is on the track and driver complaints.

It's still possible the double-file restarts could return everywhere in 2013 after series officials evaluate the performance of the new cars, but at least drivers feel like they're getting a say.

"It's an ongoing process and you're not going to fix everything overnight," 2004 IndyCar champ Tony Kanaan said when asked about the new safety measures Monday night. "I'm proud of the communication we've had between the drivers and IndyCar, but it wasn't just that aspect, either. We didn't talk among ourselves (drivers) very good, either."

A handful of drivers, including two of Wheldon's closest friends — Kanaan and three-time defending points champ Dario Franchitti, promised to change that following Wheldon's funeral.

By building a consensus, series officials are paying more attention to all of the drivers' complaints, not just on safety matters.

The series also announced Tuesday it will experiment with three 30-lap qualification heats at Iowa. The 10 fastest cars in practice will run against each other in the first heat and will take the top 10 starting spots. A second heat will determine odd numbered starting spots 11 through 31 and the third heat will determine even numbered starting spots 12 through 32.

IndyCar will not use a blind draw to determine the starting lineup anywhere, a year after it tried the gimmick before one of the twin races at Texas. Franchitti contended his poor starting spot in the second of twin races at Texas last summer cost him valuable points and could have cost him the championship.

But Bernard said the qualifying heats at Iowa are different from the blind draw.

"I think this is different because it's actual competition that will determine the start order, not a blind draw," Bernard said. "Looking in hindsight, it was probably a mistake doing a blind draw."

What more can be done to make IndyCar racing safer?

Ryan Hunter-Reay thinks it's time to make the catch-fences safer. Two-time series runner-up Will Power believes it's time to cover the open cockpits and protect the head.

Apparently, it's all up for debate.

"It's not something that happens with a snap of the fingers," Franchitti said. "But anything we've put on the table, they've listened to and they're working toward it."

Barfield has many other ideas he's considering for this season, including experimenting with standing starts in one yet to be determined race. He's not sure what will stick for 2013.

"Randy tasked me with creating concepts I thought we could implement that I thought could create excitement for our fans and maybe get us some new fans," Barfield said. "The heat races is definitely somewhat of a trial, but also something that I am looking at as 'We're doing this for the first time, we're going to see what we can learn from it and how it works, and it's not something that is just going to go away.'

"Using heat races long-term is certainly a possibility."

On Monday, he participated in his first driver meeting since moving from the ALMS sports car series to IndyCar.

The meeting with the current IndyCar drivers was more of an open forum then the typical procedural at-track sessions Barfield will preside over in his new role. But he used Monday to lay out some of his ideas, and stressed he's willing to have an open-mind and collect feedback from drivers on important issues.

"It was more of an open forum, but in that regard, it went well," he said. "It's very important that the drivers understand I am open-minded, but once we get to a point where it's very clear I've got to make a decision, I will be firm."

He's currently collected feedback on potential standing starts, but said using it in at least one race this season is "something else that's popping up on my radar as something I'd like to try sooner rather than later."

Barfield said he's being careful about which venues are appropriate to try new ideas, and the importance of giving enough lead time for IndyCar and the drivers to understand how the practices will be applied. By picking Iowa for the heat races, he gave the series almost four months to address any potential issues.

"Iowa was timing-wise, it worked out for giving us a little bit of time to plan and write the rules for it," he said.

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