Drivers, INDYCAR united for safety

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- On a mid-February trip from Indianapolis to Houston, Justin Wilson made a pit stop in St. Petersburg to give the 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary street circuit the once-over.

“(I was there to) offer an opinion from a driver’s point of view,” the IZOD IndyCar Series veteran said. “Sometimes it’s different from what people see on the outside. There were a couple of small things – curbs, runoff – that I pointed out ... but there are a lot of constraints with street circuits.”

It’s an inspection process that INDYCAR is seeking to conduct at every racetrack on the schedule – potentially offering short-term solutions to pertinent issues and/or long-term suggestions – for safety and possibly improve the racing.

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“It’s an example of the collaborative effort between the driver advisory group and the IZOD IndyCar Series for the betterment of everyone,” INDYCAR president of operations Brian Barnhart said. “It won’t just be about track inspections at racetracks. It will be about everything from identifying markers, painting of curbs and more complicated things such as runoff depth and tire barrier configurations.

“Those are important things to have opinions on and for us to work with the promoter to provide as safe an environment as possible. We’re going to prioritize some and there are some that are procedural or competition related.

“It’s important for us to listen to the drivers as a group. They have concerns and it’s in our best interest and theirs that we work together to try to improve things.”

In the blog: How St. Petersburg got its name

The driver advisory group, led by Wilson, reigning series champion Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan, met formally in October to voice suggestions and opinions to INDYCAR following the death of compatriot Dan Wheldon in a race accident. The group isn’t as structured as the Formula One Grand Prix Drivers Association, which an individual had to be a member of in order to race, but there is unity with the betterment of the sport the platform.

“This is more than just going racing. This is everybody’s lives -- not just on the racetrack but the whole sport as an industry with thousands of people who work in IndyCar racing,” Wilson said. “We feel a responsibility to try to do the right thing and move the sport forward as best we can.

“There were a lot of thoughts and information after Las Vegas, and the following months we’ve been collecting that information. We passed it on to INDYCAR about what’s practical or not. It’s been a big job for everybody. Dario, Tony and myself talked quite a bit about track inspections and what we can do there and INDYCAR has embraced it.”

Many drivers have passed through the INDYCAR office since the beginning of the year to talk with Barnhart, director of operations Bill van de Sandt and president of competition and new IZOD IndyCar Series Race Director Beaux Barfield. 

“It’s a strong community. Everybody’s trying to make things better and move forward – not just safety but everything,” Wilson continued. “Most drivers have sat down with Beaux and that was a good, informal conversation.  The main thing is to have all the good intentions and try to follow through with them.”
Franchitti, who begins defense of his series title in the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg this weekend (a race he won in 2011), said he appreciates the feedback, suggestions and opinions. 

“Some of us are very good friends,” he said. “Sure we have our moments on the track and fallouts on occasion, but I think what I’ve noticed in the paddock in general there has been a respect between the drivers – and certainly since Dan’s accident certainly more so we’re all on the same page that we have to work together to make things happen.

“We’re all in the same boat as far as I don’t think anybody can understand what you go through as a driver -- both the good stuff and the bad stuff. Nobody can understand that like another driver can. No matter what happens on the track, how much a rivalry is on the track, we’re going to work together.”