Franchitti says IndyCar is refocused on safety

Dario Franchitti hasn't had any time to celebrate his fourth IndyCar title.

He's been too busy working during a somber offseason.

Instead of kicking back and relaxing with his wife, Ashley Judd, Franchitti has been out testing the new 2012 car, discussing safety proposals with series officials and reflecting on the death of his close friend, Dan Wheldon.

"It's been obviously a lot different this year with losing Dan at the last race. It (winning a fourth series title) has not been something I thought about that much," Franchitti said on a conference call with reporters Tuesday. "It did sink in. It's bizarre. Last year it sunk in when I was in the middle of the Outback when I was on a motorbike. This year I think I was driving somewhere when it hit me. Last year I felt it was kind of really joy."

There has been nothing joyous about this title tour.

Six days after clinching his third straight points championship in Las Vegas, Franchitti was in Florida for Wheldon's funeral. The next day, he attended a public memorial service in Indianapolis. The day after that, he was back at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, leading a meeting with drivers and series officials to discuss safety reforms.

Things were even tougher when the 38-year-old European native returned home.

He drove a go-kart to help raise money for Alzheimer's research, Wheldon's favorite charity. And as Franchitti made the rounds on the United Kingdom racing awards circuit, Wheldon's family brought back reminders, too.

"If he (Dan) was here, he would have been here with me, he would have been celebrating his Indy 500, and I would have been celebrating the championship," Franchitti said. "We would have had a good time. He would have been getting the plaudits he richly deserved. Whether it was his family or his dad, Clive, getting these awards on his behalf, it was pretty tough."

The two drivers had plenty in common.

Franchitti grew up in Scotland, Wheldon in England. Both won two Indianapolis 500s, were enormously popular within the racing community and drove for Michael Andretti at the height of team's success.

But when tragedy struck in October, Franchitti's life changed. From the moment he broke down in tears in the cockpit of his No. 10 car, Franchitti became a more forceful advocate for driver's safety.

In the weeks since Vegas, Franchitti has been testing the new IndyCar and getting feedback from others who have done the same. He's stayed in touch with other drivers and series officials about what measures could be taken to prevent another racing death.

The league's investigation showed a "limitless" track at Vegas was a key factor leading to the crash. IndyCar president Brian Barnhart said the series will conduct more testing at ovals, and that he hopes to put 12 or more cars on those tracks to better simulate racing conditions — a move Franchitti approves.

"I think Dan's accident was a catalyst for a renewal of that (safety) effort. We've all been working on that," Franchitti said. "Yeah, I think right now I'm happy with what I see and with the effort that everybody's putting in, the fact that the drivers have very much been included in that. I take my hat off to the IndyCar Series for doing that."

Safety isn't the only concern.

Bernard said last Thursday he was hoping to release the 2012 schedule in the next two days. It's still not out and the tentative schedule only has three oval races.

The new cars have not performed as well as expected, either, and will likely require additional work to get up to speed.

Franchitti and Ganassi believe those problems will get solved, in time.

"I think in terms of road racing, the car is fine. It just needs a little help on the ovals," said team owner Chip Ganassi. "There's only three ovals right now from what we're hearing. That may be a blessing right off the bat."

But for Franchitti, the most difficult part of the offseason has been the memory of winning a championship at a race where he lost a friend.

"What happened with Dan was absolutely tragic. We miss him. Really, I don't know what else to say apart from that," he said. "He was obviously a great friend and a terrific competitor. I think I speak for the whole racing community, especially the IndyCar family, that we'll all really, really miss him."