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IndyCar has issues to fix beyond Wheldon accident

By Jenna Fryer
AP Auto Racing Writer / October 27, 2011

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IndyCar made gains this year in building a buzz about the series that many believed would carry over into the 2012 season.

Even so, there was obvious work that still had to be done during the offseason. Though the investigation of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon's death now takes top priority, other pressing issues can't be forgotten.

First up is the 2012 car that Wheldon, the primary test driver, helped develop. The investigation into Wheldon's death -- the result of a 15-car accident in the early laps of the Oct. 16 season finale at Las Vegas -- could reveal information that potentially could be applied to the car.

Four-time series champion Dario Franchitti got his first laps in the car this week during a two-day test at Sebring, and said Thursday that drivers have a long way to go in getting the car ready for next season.

"I'm really appreciative of Dallara naming the car after Dan; he did put a lot of work into it, and he did a really good job of not telling us anything," Franchitti said. "He was very secretive about what went on so he didn't give anyone an advantage, and a few of us tried to tap him for information.

"We're at the beginning of a long development process. ... We still have a lot of work to do. It will be a busy couple of months."

Although the new car has been touted as both safer and technologically improved, Wheldon's accident has led to a call for a variety of new features such as increased horsepower, less downforce and a closed canopy cockpit, which driver Will Power said isn't realistic.

"It's no question better than the old car, a little easier to drive and it's definitely faster," said Power, who has tested. "But I think a canopy itself would be a very long-term project. You've got to be able to get out of the car if there happened to be a fire; you've got to be able to be extracted quickly. It's not something that can be put on in the next three months."

Franchitti also downplayed the calls for a canopy.

"This is the problem with these knee-jerk things," said Franchitti, "how big a canopy would there have had to have been for Dan to survive? How thick would it have had to have been? You know?"

While the teams work on car development, CEO Randy Bernard must address the 2012 schedule, which is unfinished.

Bernard previously had announced that the series will return next season to Detroit's Belle Isle Park, and he's been working hard on a deal to stage an event in China.

Although Las Vegas already had been announced as the season finale, a return to that track or any other high-banked oval is up for debate.

NASCAR five-time champion Jimmie Johnson was blasted by fans for calling on IndyCar to stop racing on ovals, but Johnson specifically meant the high-banked tracks. Franchitti and Power, two of IndyCar's most visible drivers, said Johnson is not off the mark.

"I absolutely understood what he meant, and I think that was totally taken the wrong way," Power said. "But my personal thought is that all those tracks, the high-banked tracks, were built for NASCAR. Las Vegas used to be a track we could race, and then they added the banking. The fact is, a stock car is three times the weight of an IndyCar, and that it makes it very difficult to get the formula right for many of those big ovals."

IndyCar wants to mix ovals with street and road courses as Bernard tries to market the series as the most versatile in motorsports. His struggle now will be finding enough suitable venues. Texas Motor Speedway, a banked oval, presumably will be on the 2012 schedule, but a sanctioning agreement has not been completed yet with a track many consider to be second in prestige only to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage said he wants IndyCar back, and the lack of a deal right now is strictly business related. It doesn't help that Gossage loved Texas running after the Indy 500 -- the date Belle Isle now has.

Penske Racing president Tim Cindric said completing a schedule is paramount.

"There's a lot of priorities, and one is to understand what the schedule is for next year because people have to plan," Cindric said. "We have to establish how we are going to compete so that the manufacturers that have come into the series have a level playing field, and the drivers that are competing in the series are confident that we're going to continue to improve the areas of competition and the areas of safety."

Bernard also has two very serious areas of competition to address.

This past season was controversial as drivers openly complained of inconsistent officiating. Although the politically correct way to fingerpoint was to blame a muddled rule book that leaves much room for interpretation, drivers also lashed out at race director Brian Barnhart.

In August, Power jumped out of his car, hopped over a wall and then flashed two middle fingers at race officials following an aborted restart on a wet track at New Hampshire. He later was fined $30,000 and put on probation for the obscene gesture. A month later, three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves called Barnhart a "circus clown" during a Twitter rant about a penalty imposed on the final lap at Japan. He also was fined $30,000.

Before the season ended Bernard promised an offseason "scrubbing" of the rule book. In a recent interview, he told The Associated Press that's still the plan.

"Our goal was always to have this done by mid-December, but it might take an extra couple of weeks with the investigation now being the priority," he said. "We know we need to tighten the rule book, and we'll debrief over the next few weeks with many people in the series and react with an appropriate plan."

Bernard would not speculate about Barnhart's future.

"We're debriefing on all elements," he said.

Power suggested creating a team of stewards similar to Formula One so that one person in race control doesn't have the authority to make every decision. But even if nothing changed, a tighter rule book could alleviate some of the controversy.

"I'd add people up there to make the decision, to make it easier on the race director so he doesn't have to do everything. It will make things easier and make the decisions fair, no question," Power said. "But the rule book absolutely needs to be black and white, clear as day. Whoever is calling the race has to be able to make clear decisions and understand exactly what the penalty is. That's something that absolutely has got to be changed."