FONTANA, Calif. – Dan Wheldon's fatal accident in last year's IndyCar season finale was a harsh reminder of the dangers in auto racing.
Wheldon's death infuriated his colleagues, who had warned series officials of the dangers of pack racing. The shaken drivers then dreaded for months going to Texas, their first race on a high-banked oval since Wheldon's accident last October.
IndyCar worked with the drivers on selecting the right formula for Texas, and the June event received rave reviews for both the improved safety and the quality of racing.
It also worked wonders in calming the nerves of the drivers, who came to Auto Club Speedway for Saturday night's finale much more relaxed about racing on ovals.
"We feel better because of the changes to the formula," IndyCar points leader Will Power said. "For the past however many years we had that pack racing and had gotten lucky and there had been some horrific accidents and horrific injuries, but no one had been killed. Eventually, in the law of averages, someone is going to be (killed) when you race like that.
"I feel great, and after Texas, I wouldn't have minded if every race was like that, with that formula, because that was the most fun I've had."
It's a huge difference from three months ago, when the debate over the rules package raged deep into the race weekend at Texas. The drivers were unanimously opposed to the pack-style racing that was cited as a factor in Wheldon's fatal accident at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but finding a solution wasn't so simple.
Although they voted to recommend less downforce on their cars, finding the right number was a moving target and tweaks were made after almost every on-track session.
"All the drivers agreed we need less downforce, and it's bloody tough to get all the drivers to agree on something and execute and then get the series to actually do it," Power said.
In the end, IndyCar's rules package worked just fine.
"I think that was a big wake-up, like, 'Oh, wow, the race was great, you had to drive the car, they were all moving around,'" Power said. "Everyone is like, 'Yeah, that's real racing.' We actually put the driver back into the equation, on ovals, and that's the direction we need to keep heading. Because what we were doing, spending two hours racing inches apart, wasn't even real racing. It was just wide open, you aren't even driving, you are just guiding the thing. Side-by-side, lap after lap after lap after lap, no one passes anyone.
"It required not much talent with quite a lot of risk."
So the drivers headed into Fontana, which opened Wednesday for an eight-hour test session, confident a reduction of downforce will ensure there's no pack racing Saturday night.
Tony Kanaan, who with Justin Wilson and Dario Franchitti leads the drivers group, said a meeting two weeks ago in Baltimore went well.
"Having done Texas, it helped a lot, and in Baltimore, nobody was as concerned as they were before we got to Texas," said Kanaan, adding a large part of the issue with racing on ovals was the emotional scars from Wheldon's death.
"That was actually 90 percent of the problem. It's in our heads sometimes, so (Texas) helped. Psychologically, Texas did it for us."
For Kanaan and a few others, the track itself has an emotional pull. He was in the 1999 CART race here when Greg Moore was killed, and for some, being back at Fontana is a reminder of Moore.
"Thoughts of Greg, they never went away, but obviously they become a little more alive when you are here," Kanaan said. "But it's the same like after Indy here, we need to put a closure on the suffering about Dan or about Greg. The way I see it now is, let's do this and be happy about it. We do what we love, he was doing what he loved, both of them. We can't be sad, otherwise it's going to kill you."
So they focus on the racing, and know even with the improved safety measures and the success of Texas that Fontana will still present its own set of challenges.
It's a fast, wide oval, and only a quarter of the field has ever raced on the track before. IndyCar is returning to Auto Club Speedway for the first time since 2005, and only seven of the 26 drivers entered have raced here before. Those with experience before found the track to be much bumpier than they remembered.
"I was just surprised when I got back on it how bumpy it was," said Ryan Hunter-Reay, who tested at Fontana in 2003. "It feels like there's some pretty harsh winters here and that's not the case, usually you get there on tracks up north."
The race distance also was extended 100 miles, joining the Indianapolis 500 as the only two 500-milers on the schedule.
And, there's a championship on the line.
Power takes a 17-point lead over Hunter-Reay into the finale, with both drivers seeking their first championship. The winner will officially end Franchitti's three-year run as champion, and Power is seeking to take the title after falling short in the finale the last two years. Hunter-Reay is in his first championship race, and is trying to become the first American driver since 2006 to win the title.
Hunter-Reay had a rough start to the weekend, wrecking his car early in Wednesday's test, but didn't think it was a big setback.
"All good," he smiled. "We got it out of the way."