When the 96th Indianapolis 500 revs up Sunday, May 27, on ABC from Indianapolis Motor Speedway, one figure will loom large over the proceedings. And he won't even be there -- at least physically.
Dan Wheldon, the two-time Indy 500 winner and '05 series champ who was killed in a multicar pileup at last year's season finale at Las Vegas, will be impossible to overlook for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that had he lived, he'd be the defending race champ.
Wheldon was well-liked and respected by his friends and rivals in IndyCar, and his death last fall devastated the auto racing community and put a sad coda to what had otherwise been a successful 2011 season.
One who feels Wheldon's absence more than most is Dario Franchitti, himself a two-time Indy 500 victor and four-time IndyCar champ, who was a good friend and former teammate of Wheldon's at Andretti Green Racing from 2003 to 2005.
"Oh, Dan's going to be a huge presence at Indianapolis this year," Franchitti, 39, tells Zap2it. "At Indy, the winner from the previous year is on the ticket. There's a big picture - Firestone did a big billboard out front, so Dan's going to be big and large all around the speedway, and that's going to be bittersweet.
"But it's funny actually, his sister Holly sent me a picture this morning of him and I just after he won last year, and he was very emotional. And it was a great thing he did, you know, a one-off race with a small team, Bryan Herta Autosport, and winning that race. That was very, very impressive."
Talk to Franchitti, and he'll have many a funny story to tell about his time at Andretti Green. Many revolve around the pranks played among himself and teammates Wheldon, Herta and Tony Kanaan. In fact, at a memorial tribute to Wheldon last fall in Indianapolis, the three surviving friends regaled the crowd with stories of their practical jokes, many of which were at Wheldon's expense and played on his propensity for neatness.
"In those situations at that point, he was kind of the younger brother we kind of picked on," Franchitti says. "But definitely he got us all back because in 2005 he won the championship and the Indy 500 when we were all teammates. So he got the last laugh, absolutely."
If there is a positive to be taken from the Wheldon tragedy, it's the efforts to make the redesigned Indy race car safer. The new design, dubbed the "DW12" in Wheldon's honor, adds features such as bumpers behind the rear wheels to prevent the type of accident that happened last fall. That led to initial balance and handling problems, which have since been corrected, but speeds so far in testing at Indy have been down - an average of 7 mph - leaving some concerned.
Franchitti says it will be a challenge learning the new car on the 2.5-mile Indy oval, but he takes comfort in the fact that everyone is in the same boat.
"It's a major learning curve, and it's interesting," he says. "I think for everybody in the field it's going to be different because the old-style car, the teams and the experienced drivers knew it so well that it was just really a case of fine-tuning it every year.
"We're going to be trying to dial this new car in, which is completely different, and there are going to be, much like the season, a lot of unknowns. So it's our first oval race of the season, and it's going to be a very busy and interesting time. ... We all start at the same point, so it's up to us to try to do a better job than the other people."
Photo/Video credit: IndyCar