Franchitti set on honoring Wheldon

By Jenna Fryer

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 25 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Dario Franchitti, left, of Scotland; Tony Kanaan, of Brazil; and Bryan Herta tell stories during a memorial service for Dan Wheldon in Indianapolis, Sunday, Oct. 23, 2011. Wheldon was killed Sunday, Oct. 16, in a 15-car crash during the IndyCar auto race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Michael Conroy, Associated Press

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.

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