Motor

IndyCar drivers honor Wheldon Wednesday

Susie Wheldon, widow of IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon, speaks at the dedication of "Dan Wheldon Way"
Dan Wheldon's widow, Susie, speaks at Wednesday's dedication.
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Holly Cain

Holly Cain has covered racing in all its forms for 21 years, winning multiple awards from the Associated Press Sports Editors and Society of Professional Journalists for feature and news writing. She chronicled NASCAR Champion Rusty Wallace's final season, authoring a book called "Rusty's Last Call." Follow her on Twitter.

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.

Typically, race car drivers dread and then dutifully endure the bane and monotony of preseason testing and media day. Not this season.

Not the IndyCar Series.

For the first time since popular two-time Indy 500 champ Dan Wheldon was killed in the 2011 season finale, all the series drivers reunited for official testing days at Sebring International Raceway in rural Central Florida. Then they took a midweek pause Wednesday in St. Petersburg to meet with the national media previewing the upcoming season, which begins March 25 along the St. Pete waterfront.

And to honor their friend Wheldon.

The mayor of St. Petersburg, where the British-bred Wheldon and his wife, Susie, moved in 2005, led a small ceremony to unveil and dedicate “Dan Wheldon Way” — a street near the waterfront named in the driver's honor – and to show an artist rendering of a permanent stone monument that will celebrate Wheldon’s life.

“Sebastian and Oliver will be so proud to see what their dad meant,’’ said Wheldon’s widow, Susie, speaking of their young sons in one of her first public appearances since Wheldon’s memorial service in October.

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For the drivers, healing may best come behind the wheel.

“It’s been the longest offseason of my life,’’ said Marco Andretti, who would have been teaming with Wheldon at his family’s Andretti Autosport team this season. “But the way I persevere is I look at Dan as the competitor he was, so I want to go out and compete. It takes your mind off (Wheldon’s accident) a little, but not a day goes by you don’t think of Dan.

“Every time I come to St. Pete, I will think of Dan and I’m trying to win St. Pete for him.’’

The irony of starting the new season in Wheldon’s adopted hometown was not lost on anyone. But without exception, they were hopeful that time and a focus would ease the wounds.

The series will debut a new and safety-improved chassis this year as well as the return of engine competition between Chevrolet, Honda and Lotus. There is a new lead official in race control, Beaux Barfield, and IndyCar also introduced former Formula One star Rubens Barrichello, who will run a full season for KV Racing.

SPEEDTV.com Looking for more IndyCar Series racing news? Check out SPEED.com.

In years past, the teams have been severely limited in their testing opportunities as a way to cut costs and even the playing field. But with the new engines and cars, teams have been encouraged to turn as many preseason laps as possible — a blessing for drivers eager to return to the sanctity of their race cars.

“We ended last year, unfortunately, with Dan’s tragedy, and everyone’s still wearing that scar a bit,’’ said Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay. “But we’re opening the year in his hometown, and there’s no better way to honor him than with a big event here.’’

Three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves agreed.

“It’s very difficult for us,’’ said Castroneves, whose Team Penske Chevrolet was fastest in the first two days of testing. “Dan was someone of my generation, someone still at the peak of his career, and it’s tough so see someone of that group not be here.

“Him being from St. Pete makes it even more difficult, but we are racers and we have to focus for the race. We’re never going to forget what happened, but time will help heal, and I think the best thing is for us to go testing and have the first race — it makes us focus on one thing. We are race car drivers, and we want to be in the race car.’’

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