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Long IndyCar off-season a blessing in disguise

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Andretti Autosport driver Ryan Hunter-Reay demonstrated the Chevrolet-powered 2012 IndyCar at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on October 15, 2011 ( Racing Photo).
Andretti Autosport driver Ryan Hunter-Reay demonstrated the Chevrolet-powered 2012 IndyCar at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on October 15, 2011 ( Racing Photo).

Someone recently asked me what I thought about the yawning divide between the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series finale at Las Vegas and the start of the 2012 racing season.

The question was fraught with complexity because of Dan Wheldon's death. Normally, most of us would say that the new season couldn't come fast enough, but now we seem to be torn about it.

On the one hand, the best possible medicine for Wheldon's peers would be seat time in the car, not six months for the tragic events of October 16 to weigh on them. A fresh start would also help fans move on too, not because of the new cars and engines that will mark the beginning of a new era in the sport.

But there is a significant advantage about having half a year before IndyCars turn another lap in anger, and that is that whatever safety changes need to be made in the series can be done with a surfeit of research and development time instead of applied piecemeal.

In 2001, after Dale Earnhardt died in the final lap of the Daytona 500, the NASCAR Winston Cup Series was racing the very next week at North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham. Earnhardt's car was painted white and had a black #29 on the doors, and Steve Park - one of Earnhardt's drivers for the new Dale Earnhardt, Inc. team - made the Intimidator's team two-for-two on the season with a cathartic, emotional victory.

That's what people remember - the bright yellow #1 Chevrolet battling Bobby Labonte in a duel for the ages, and the spiritual among the fanbase awash in the idea that Dale was watching from above as his team sealed another sentimental victory. What is too easily forgotten was the sense of dread that each accident in that race inspired in those watching it - never worse than when Dale Earnhardt, Jr., crashed into the turn three wall in an accident eerily similar to the one that killed his father only a week before.

Junior was fine - and later in the season he would score an even more cathartic win at Daytona in the summer Pepsi 400 - but until he crawled from his car the NASCAR world held its collective breath. They would keep holding their breath throughout the season, because though Dale Sr.'s death helped spur a revolution in stock car racing safety, the ability to implement the good ideas available to the sanction was curtailed by the necessity of continuing the inexorable march of the racing season.

Sadly, it was not the last death in stock cars, as in October of the same year young Blaise Alexander, a driver whose star was on the rise, was killed in an ARCA event by the same confluence of factors - hard walls, angle of impact, and basilar skull fracture in the absence of a HANS device. It was Alexander's death - occurring in a crash involving Kerry Earnhardt in a particularly cruel irony - that finally convinced NASCAR to formally mandate the HANS device and SAFER barriers for future seasons.

In hindsight, while allowing the show to go on the way it did helped competitors and fans to accelerate their recovery process from the grief and shock of Earnhardt's death, it did nobody any favors in terms of making the necessary and overdue changes to NASCAR safety and progress.

IndyCar drivers and fans may wish that the series could have immediately gone back to racing like NASCAR did ten years ago, but in truth the delay may be one of the few saving graces of the Las Vegas aftermath. There are six full months for the shock and grief to play through their cycle properly, for one. The instant, knee-jerk reactions to the tragedy - especially those from outside the sport - have time to peter out and evaporate, leaving a more level-headed and meticulous, careful approach in their wake.

Another critical consideration is that the immediate IndyCar family has been able to reach out and support the Wheldon family without being fettered by race preparations and obligations. Who really believes that the Dan Wheldon Auction that Graham Rahal started would have gained nearly as much momentum as it has (over $200,000 in proceeds to the Wheldon Family Trust as of this writing) if Graham had been busy at the track with his race car? This is not an indictment of priorities, simply an acknowledgement of reality - the demands on the community of continuing to race would have been too great to accommodate the selfless acts we have seen in the past few weeks.

That the development period of the DW12 IndyCar falls squarely into this gap is another stroke of good luck from a situation that had very little good about it. Wheldon himself had done yeoman's work on the new chassis prior to the Las Vegas race, and now his friends Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti are busy building upon his accumulated data for their respective manufacturers. Should IndyCar's investigations indicate critical changes to the DW12, they can be made now, at a point where the development of the car is still fluid and malleable.

An off-season can seem like an eternity to fans and competitors hungry for racing action, but this is one time when time is an unexpected luxury.