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IndyCar bosses meet with drivers group

INDIANAPOLIS -- A group of about 20 IndyCar drivers met Monday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with series management to discuss safety initiatives in the wake of Dan Wheldon's fatal accident.

The three-hour meeting was termed "preliminary" but "constructive" by several IndyCar veterans.

"We all got to talk a lot and listen a lot and look at how we can improve things going forward in all areas," said four-time IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti. "I think it was a very positive and productive meeting and that's the first step. We all want to improve things. It was a massive shock what happened to Dan last week. But we saw in MotoGP yesterday (where rider Marco Simoncelli was killed during the Malaysian Grand Prix) that racing is a dangerous business.

"How we react to this is critical and I'm very encouraged by what I saw today," Franchitti added. "There's still a lot of heavy hearts -- massively -- but everyone is very positive about the outlook. This is the first step and we'll move forward with it."

Along with Tony Kanaan and Justin Wilson, Franchitti has served as an unofficial leader for the drivers over the past year or so. Kanaan also emerged from Monday's meeting with the belief that IndyCar is taking the drivers' safety concerns seriously.

Kanaan pointed out that IndyCar racing has historically been the source of many safety advancements, including the padded SAFER barrier that has been almost universally adopted by oval tracks.

"Everybody had a very positive attitude (at the meeting)," Kanaan said. "We have a new opportunity with a new car next year and everyone was trying to get on the same page and brainstorm for the future.

"We need to work with IndyCar to make the racing a little bit less dangerous. Racing has always been dangerous and that's how it always will be. What impresses me the most is that everyone is very unified and on the same page. We're not going to make motor racing 100 percent safe. That's a fact. But we can live with that fact as long as we can make it better."

Davey Hamilton, who returned to part-time competition after suffering severe leg injuries in a 2001 IndyCar race at Texas Motor Speedway, is encouraged by the reaction to the Wheldon tragedy.

"Dario, Tony and Justin Wilson have taken the lead in unifying us and we're in a great group," Hamilton observed. "We've been exchanging calls and emails in a very positive way. We're doing it for the wellness of our sport.

"The car we've been running has been safe, but Dallara is putting in extra work to make the new car even safer," he continued. "We have to take that to the next step and be the leader, on the cutting edge of safety. I think the IndyCar Series is up to that."

Graham Rahal said he believes that Wheldon's death has served as a wake-up call that will encourage IndyCar officials to work more closely with the drivers to ensure the safety of competitors and fans.

"It's sad to say that even up until this point, the things the drivers have said ... it's almost as if we don't matter," Rahal said. "Now that I think we have a little bit more power, I hope that as a driver's association we can stand up and make the changes that we all believe in. Everybody wants the same changes and hopefully we can make it happen. Now is the time to say the things that need to be said."

"As long as racing has been around, it has been a reactionary sport,"
Rahal added. "They react to the incidents, and we can't do that anymore. We've got to be ahead of the curve. Things have come a long way and I think they are going to continue to come a long way. We can make changes to make the racing better, safer and more exciting for the drivers, and more exciting for the fans. We lost a very good friend and that's not acceptable."

Franchitti defended IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard, who has received strong criticism from the mainstream press since Wheldon's death. Bernard has remained virtually silent in the last week until making an appearance at the public memorial held for Wheldon Sunday in Indianapolis.

"It's completely wrong to criticize Randy and finger-pointing isn't going to do anyone here any good at all," Franchitti said. "What's very clear to me is that we are all unified going forward -- the drivers and the IndyCar Series.

"Obviously knee-jerk reactions are not the thing we need," he added. "That's something everybody is very cognizant of. It's a difficult situation for everybody. We all still have Dan on our minds and we're going to do everything we can to make this sport as safe as possible."

Franchitti's mentor, three-time Formula One world champion Jackie Stewart, was vilified for being a safety advocate during his driving career in the 1960s and '70s. Dario said that he has reached out to Stewart in the wake of Wheldon's death and will continue to seek advice from his fellow Scotsman.

"There's a responsibility for all the drivers and that was very clear long before Dan's accident," Franchitti said. "We're very cognizant of that. The difference we have now that maybe Jackie didn't have is that the promoters and the sport in general were not supporting him.

"As drivers, we have the support of each other, the support of the IndyCar Series and the fans and everybody."

Franchitti and Kanaan are both scheduled to participate in manufacturer tests of the 2012 Dallara Indy car next week at Sebring International Raceway. But there will be an increased emphasis on safety during the development phase of the new car prior to the IndyCar Series season opener on March 25 at St. Petersburg, Fla.

"We used to relax in the offseason, but now we have a new car and we have a lot of work to do," Kanaan said. "We're going to be testing a lot more than we used to and speaking about safety and things we need to change. I think we're actually going to be a lot busier now than we were during the season.

"We're not going to fix everything at once, or even next year," Kanaan added. "This is a starting point for a long process. But everyone has a positive attitude about making the effort to make it better."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.