By JENNA FRYER, Associated Press
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — The last time IndyCar was on the track as a series, the drivers tearfully turned five laps in tribute of fallen friend Dan Wheldon.
Now, Sunday's season opener is practically a tribute race.
The drivers will compete for the first time since Wheldon's death last October — racing through the streets of St. Petersburg, Wheldon's adopted hometown. They'll drive a car named for him and navigate their way through Turn 10, recently renamed Dan Wheldon Way.
Holly Wheldon, his little sister, will drop the green flag and present the winner's trophy. Fans have been asked to wear orange to honor the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, and the annual post-race party Wheldon traditionally hosted will carry on in his name.
St. Pete is the place IndyCar's drivers most associate with Wheldon. It's also the place where they'll attempt to return to some normalcy, even with reminders of Wheldon everywhere they turn.
"It's almost fitting in many ways, the way the calendar has worked out," Scott Dixon said. "I think it's going to be tough, but I think it's also a nice way to start the season, almost like it was written that way. But, yeah, it'll never be the same. Never be the same."
It's been five months since IndyCar's last race, and the drivers' visit here earlier this month for a series appearance was the first for most since Wheldon's memorial service. Now, it's a careful balance of embracing the excitement of a new season while also honoring the popular Englishman.
"Man, it gives me goosebumps just thinking about it," Tony Kanaan said. "Dan loved this city, and all the times here, spending time with him, there are so many memories. Now, one of those memories is of burying our best friend.
"We'll think about him all the time. All this season. At Indianapolis. But here, this will be hard all the way up until the national anthem, and we'll get in the cars and we'll go race."
When Dale Earnhardt died on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, NASCAR was back on the track five days later. That's how racers heal: in the car, on the track, focused on winning instead of their own immortality.
Wheldon's death was the first fatality in a major racing series since Earnhardt's accident, and the circumstances were so very different for IndyCar. The Oct. 16 race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was the season finale, and the race was halted after just 11 laps following the 15-car accident.
More than two hours later, the drivers were summoned back to their cars for the five-lap tribute. Since then, there's been occasional testing, but no real routine for the drivers.
"It's been the longest offseason of my life," said Marco Andretti.
The healing process has been different for everyone, particularly veteran drivers who have experienced death before. Three drivers entered in Sunday's race were in the 1999 CART season finale when Greg Moore was killed in an early accident.
Four-time champion Dario Franchitti, close friends with Moore, is thankful for the five-month layoff after Wheldon's death.
"I wanted to get away. It was better that everybody had space. It was too raw," he said. "It's something I went through with Greg, and I asked myself the same question, 'Do I still want to do this?' And yeah, I do."
Franchitti never got a chance to celebrate winning his fourth title; he was the points leader headed into Las Vegas, and the race was canceled after the accident. There was no season-ending banquet, just a pair of memorial services in St. Pete and Indianapolis.
"There was never that sort of fist-pumping moment with all your guys," said Franchitti, "and it won't happen because, unfortunately, when I think about that championship, I think about Vegas and I think about Dan. And that's all really."
That's the kind of toll Wheldon's death has had on IndyCar, and those emotions could follow the drivers all season long in a year that was intended to be a comeback for the series.
IndyCar will debut this weekend its first new car since 2003. Wheldon, who was without a full-time ride last season, spent the year helping Dallara with the development. As a tribute after his death, the car was named the DW12.
Wheldon was the only one to drive it for most of last season and was secretive with what he learned. By the time other drivers finally got behind the wheel, they were surprised at how much work still had to be done. Although it was designed to upgrade technology and improve safety, it had handling and speed issues during winter testing, and drivers only recently deemed the car improved enough to be suitable for road course and street circuit races.
But it's unclear how the car will perform on ovals, and there's an understandable driver concern about pack racing at Texas that has dominated conversation the last month. Even though that race isn't until June 9, drivers already are skittish about the racing conditions, because pack racing was cited in IndyCar's official investigation as one of the factors that contributed to Wheldon's accident.
Drivers also are worried about the placement of the fence posts at Texas. They are located inside the track, the same as the fence at Las Vegas, where Wheldon died when his head hit one of the poles as his car went airborne into the fence. Debate about the fence led to a contentious public back-and-forth two weeks ago with Texas track president Eddie Gossage.
"This is racing. It's dangerous. But once you know it, why wouldn't you fix it?" Oriol Servia said. "We're IndyCar drivers for the last 15-20 years. We've been doing one of the most dangerous things on Earth, happily. And we're being treated like (babies) the way it's been talked about."
The scars from Wheldon's death clearly run deep, and no one is immune. Earlier this month, the drivers attended a solemn Turn 10 dedication to Wheldon, and when his wife walked in carrying 2-year-old son, Sebastian, the front row stood one at a time to hug her.
Dixon even temporarily moved his wife and two daughters to St. Pete during the offseason to help comfort Susie Wheldon and her boys. The youngest, Oliver, celebrated his first birthday this week. A spokesman for the family said last week that Susie Wheldon had decided to leave St. Pete during race weekend.
With heavy hearts the drivers are so very careful to be respectful of Wheldon's memory, and they don't try to dodge the fact that his presence may overwhelm the weekend.
"It's very difficult for us ... It's my generation, someone that is still in the peak of his career," Helio Castroneves said. "It's tough to see someone in that group, in our group, not be here, not be part of it. We know that he was from St. Pete, so it's even made it more difficult.
"We're never going to forget what happened, but certainly time will heal. We're race car drivers. We want to be back in the race car and start getting our normal routine, which is being racers."
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