Their engines will rev in the spirit of competition Sunday afternoon, but the IndyCar racers in St. Petersburg, Fla. will surely be unable to shake the heavy feeling from their hearts. As IndyCar’s first race of 2012 kicks off through the streets of St. Pete, they’ll certainly think about the one racer conspicuously missing — number 77, Dan Wheldon.
“We’re looking forward to getting the season going, but at the same time, we’ve got to remember Dan,” Dario Franchitti, the reigning IndyCar champion, tells TIME. “I think we all have very bad memories of that last race, and losing Dan who was not only a guy we raced against, but a good friend to a lot of us.”
(PHOTOS: Dan Wheldon Dies in Fiery Crash)
Franchitti speaks of Las Vegas, the final race of last season that ended in utter tragedy – and in fact, without an official end. Wheldon, a veteran racer, reigning Indy 500 champion and a 33-year-old father of two, was killed in a 15-car wreck at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway when his car flipped into the air as he tried to avoid a multi-car crash in front of him. The race was suspended, save for a five-lap tribute to the fallendriver. Franchitti sobbed openly as the racers rounded the track.
On Sunday in St. Petersburg, Wheldon’s memory will be with all racers from start to finish. His sister, Holly, will wave the green flag to start the race and present the trophy at its end. But Wheldon’s legacy will endure in a physical sense, in a new, safer car design he had helped develop and test prior to his death. They’ve even nicknamed the car after him – it’s called the DW12. And though it was conceived before Wheldon’s passing, it will hopefully keep racers safer on the track.
“It’s got some protection now around the rear wheels as a safety issue,” Franchitti says of the redesign, which he describes as a dramatic one. “Even somebody that doesn’t know anything about IndyCar racing would look and say that’s massively different.” The car, manufactured by bespoke chassis maker Dallara, is the first IndyCar redesign since 2003. And with the new design, the famed open-wheel racing style is getting a modicum of closure thanks to a bumper that wraps around the rear tires. It’s all in the interest of caution, as the burning-hot rubber tires can cause catastrophe if they make contact with another driver’s heated tires – which was the cause of the fiery crash that led to Wheldon’s death.
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St. Petersburg will be the first time all drivers officially round a track in the new car. And Franchitti is hoping it can deliver him to a big win to kick off a crucial season for him. He is, after all, the defending winner of the Florida race, and starting the season off with a checkered-flag finish could help propel him into the history books as only the second driver in history to attain five IndyCar season titles.
But even as Franchitti looks toward the end of the IndyCar season, where he’ll hope to mark to his fourth consecutive and fifth-total championship, the season’s kickoff will certainly remain a tender memory. St. Petersburg was Wheldon’s stateside hometown – and his final resting place.