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AP Interview: Franchitti set on honoring Wheldon

IndyCar drivers Dario Franchitti, right, of Scotland, and Tony Kanaan, of Brazil, talk about discussions held during a drivers meeting at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Monday, Oct. 24, 2011. IndyCar drivers Dario Franchitti, right, of Scotland, and Tony Kanaan, of Brazil, talk about discussions held during a drivers meeting at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Monday, Oct. 24, 2011. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
By Jenna Fryer
AP Auto Racing Writer / October 25, 2011

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INDIANAPOLIS—In the frantic moments after Dan Wheldon's fatal accident, the cruel stakes of auto racing again hit a heartbroken Dario Franchitti.

Franchitti lost his best friend, Greg Moore, in the 1999 season finale. Now, another friend is gone, prompting questions about the safety of their sport and whether the reward is ever worth the risk.

A week after two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Wheldon was killed in a fiery, 15-car accident in the Oct. 16 season finale at Las Vegas, Franchitti knows there are no easy answers.

"We know as safe as we try to make it, it's still a dangerous sport. And we're going to keep trying to make it safer.

"We didn't want to lose a friend. You'd give anything to have him back here," Franchitti, choking back tears, told The Associated Press in his only extensive interview since Wheldon's death.

Leaning back in his chair, running his hand through his hair, the Scot stared hard at the wall, remembering an unbelievable week for his sport.

Wheldon's death happened on what was supposed to be a showcase day for the series, then, a week later, as IndyCar prepared for a public memorial for Wheldon, the 6-year-old son of Barry Wanser, the strategist for Franchitti's team, lost his battle with leukemia. Hours before that, Italian MotoGP star Marco Simoncelli was killed in a violent wreck in Malaysia.

All of it left Franchitti spent.

"It's tough. It's a horrible part of the sport, and it's a horrible part of life, really. When you see Dan's family, see (wife) Susie and the boys, you realize `whoa.' That's the tough part, really," Franchitti said. "The racing part, you can deal with that."

So despite the roiling emotions and heartache, Franchitti will be back in the car Wednesday testing the 2012 IndyCar at Sebring.

"I've definitely wondered if it's worth it," he said. "But I believe I still want to race."

But there's no joy in racing -- not yet.

Franchitti, the Jimmie Johnson of IndyCar, won his third consecutive series title by default over Will Power when IndyCar canceled the season finale following Wheldon's accident. His celebratory drive was instead a 5-lap tribute to Wheldon by the entire field.

"Hurt is losing Dan. Hurt is seeing his family and his friends, and as much as the championship meant to me ... as hard as I tried to win it, there's really nothing," he said. "There's not a feeling of anything. Maybe with time there will be, but I don't know."

Just nine days later, Franchitti wants to keep the focus on supporting Wheldon's wife and two sons and honoring his former teammate.

He's one of the many IndyCar drivers who used the week after Wheldon's death to close ranks and stay silent as a public that had previously ignored the series now demanded immediate answers: Why was the series racing at high-banked Las Vegas? Were the speeds too fast? Was the field too large? Were too many drivers inexperienced? Was Wheldon too aggressive while racing for a $5 million promotional prize?

It's pointless, Franchitti said, to blame any one person or circumstance from that fateful Sunday. It was evident early, though, that the race was like no other.

There were a season-high 34 cars on the track and drivers of varying levels of experience. The IndyCars by nature hit speeds of more than 220 mph, and on a wide-open oval such as Las Vegas, there was room for the drivers to go three-wide without ever lifting. Add in the progressive banking, and there was no room for error.

Franchitti, whizzing along in the opening laps, saw it all unfolding in front of him and, without a word spoken, hooked up with teammate Scott Dixon and began sliding backward in the field.

"I didn't need to be in the thick of it in lap five or seven or whatever," he said. "It just started, several situations, where I was in the middle of three-wide. Already. And I thought `This is not, this is too early for this kind of stuff.' So I went in behind Scott ... and we were slowly going farther toward the back and, um, yeah, and that's where we were when the accident happened."

When they came to the accident, the debris littered the track, and the only thing Franchitti knew for sure was there had been a significant wreck. It wasn't until he'd been out of his car some five minutes that he learned someone was hurt, that it was Wheldon, and as a flurry of activity erupted along pit road, the severity of the situation became clear.

But it was hectic, details were fuzzy and emotions were raw. When it became clear that Wheldon had been killed, Franchitti described a scene of confusion.

Grief-stricken drivers weren't sure what to do next. They are born and bred to be racers, and racers clean up the track, get back in the cars and finish the show.

On this day, though, nobody felt much like continuing, and those feelings were in direct conflict with all they've ever known. So when IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard decided to cancel the race and close with the tribute to Wheldon, Franchitti said there was relief.

"The drivers were very concerned. Each person was very confused, and Randy, ultimately, he really as a leader did a good job and took the decision out of our hands," Franchitti said.

It's a decision that went against hardened racers, who have criticized Bernard for calling it off.

That's too bad, Franchitti said.

"He made absolutely the right choice," Franchitti said. "Especially when I got back in the car and I realized how emotional I was there, and I thought `Absolutely right decision.' I think most of us couldn't drive because the tears, we couldn't see where we were going."

The ongoing investigation into Wheldon's accident could bring changes to IndyCar, in the new car that Wheldon spent all year developing as the test driver, in the venues where the series races, even the process in which drivers are ruled eligible to compete.

"I love the fact that the IndyCar series is the mix of all the disciplines and to win the championship, you've got to be strong at all of them," Franchitti said. "So we've got to be on ovals, and it's got to be safe. It's got to be a lot safer."

Even Vegas?

"You can always look back with hindsight, but we've raced on the 1.5-mile ovals before," he said. "With the information they had, I think they believed what they were doing was right. Going back now, I wouldn't do it, because we know the result."

After a three-hour driver meeting Monday, followed by another three-hour meeting among a smaller focus group to discuss the new car, Franchitti was convinced that "no stone will be left unturned." He doesn't have any idea what will happen next, if the series will continue to race on high-banked ovals or if they'll ever go back to Las Vegas.

The only thing he knows for certain is that the only way he can honor Wheldon is to get back in the car on Wednesday and start working toward improvements.

"You cannot blame one person for this," he said. "Motor racing is not safe. We've known that since I started racing, and I don't think we're being cavalier in saying that. But we have to move on, look at what we do now. We are going to look at all those elements (of the accident) and try and take as many of them out of the equation, to do whatever we can to make this as safe as we possibly can.

"That's the next step. That's where we're going, that's what we're trying to do. And when I say move on, make the right choices. That's the next step, isn't it?"