IndyCar must improve safety, perception

In the aftermath of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon’s fatal racing accident last weekend comes IndyCar’s Dale Earnhardt Moment – the opportunity, which NASCAR seized following the death of its biggest star, for the series to turn a sad situation into a learning moment and a better future.

And on Monday morning, the drivers themselves solemnly gathered at a voluntary meeting in Indianapolis called by by IZOD IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard for that reason – an opportunity to be proactive going forward.

Even as the drivers were paying respects to the late Wheldon during services over the weekend, they were discussing ideas and preparing informal agendas for Monday’s forum.

“I’m ready,’’ a former champion confided to another driver Saturday after Wheldon’s funeral.

IndyCar’s future demands the drivers not only strategize but they act prudently while the spotlight is on.

Making the cars and facilities safer might be obvious, but improving perception isn’t. IndyCar needs to do both.

“Does everything need to be evaluated? Absolutely,’’ IndyCar driver Davey Hamilton said in a telephone interview before Monday’s meeting. "When someone loses their life, you need to look at everything.”

Hamilton brings unique perspective to this, considering he was badly injured during a 2001 race at Texas Motor Speedway. The track has high-banking, high speeds and pack racing similar to that at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where Wheldon lost his life on Oct.16.

Hamilton’s accident nearly severed his legs. It took six years of surgery and rehabilitation before the former championship contender was able to race again at the IndyCar level.

He sees at least one immediate fix – the fencing at tracks, specifically at Speedway Motorsports Inc.-owned facilities such as Las Vegas and Texas. Hamilton says the problem is that the poles holding the cables and fencing are inside the track instead of behind the fencing on the grandstand side.

“The biggest thing for me, personally, is that the fencing is backward,’’ Hamilton said. “We have the SAFER barrier walls and that’s worked great for us. The next thing for our sport is to look at suspended fencing. There is a way to do that.

“It’s not the fence that’s the problem — it’s the poles and it doesn’t matter if you’re in a fendered-car or a non-fendered car.’’

“I told them that 10 years ago after my accident and they said they’d look into it. The difference was I hit it at an angle that took my legs, not my head.’’

When reached Monday to respond to Hamilton’s suggestion about the fencing, a spokesman for Speedway Motorsports Inc. declined comment.

“Is it one thing? No,” Hamilton said. “Was it having 34 cars on track? No. Is Las Vegas too banked for these cars? No. Are the cars too fast? No.

“It was the perfect storm. And this morning, we should hold hands, come together, and make it better for all of us. We have the opportunity to be heard as drivers and we want to make it for the common good.’’

The sport is already set to debut a new car for the 2012 season, which in a sad coincidence Wheldon helped test and develop over the past few months. By all accounts it will be much safer in its design, particularly in the padding and protection of the cockpit.

Beyond safety, IndyCar must address a sensible balance of promotion and prudence.

Bernard’s much-praised ability to promote is a big reason he landed his job, but there is a fine line between staying true to the competition and manufacturing entertainment.

Team owners Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi said before the first lap of competition was turned this season that they would not participate in fielding cars for “guest” drivers. That was part of Bernard’s original selling point — to have five non-regular drivers compete in a super-sized finale.

And lastly, if any sport needed an organized driver group or semblance of a union, it’s racing. The NBA and NFL disputes look silly compared to the issues of life and death in motorsports.

In 2001 – two months after NASCAR champion Earnhardt was killed on the last lap of the Daytona 500 – IndyCar drivers competing in the former CART Series refused to race at Texas Motor Speedway because of safety concerns.

Some drivers had experienced vertigo during practice and prerace warm-ups, and doctors on-site backed the drivers. The race was called off two hours before the green flag was to drop.

Earlier this year, IndyCar drivers were overruled when they opposed a double-file restart procedure aimed at “creating excitement.” Several veterans also opposed the expanded 34-car field on the 1.5-mile Las Vegas track. (Other than the Indy 500, a typical oval grid is 26 cars.)

With the spotlight on, IndyCar has a chance to respond and recover.

Dan Wheldon liked to joke that he never gave a bad interview. He certainly never missed an opportunity to make an impact.

It’s a legacy his series should embrace and emulate.