Sunday at Homestead, Fla., was my first race in the booth as a color commentator for the IndyCar Series. But the event itself became secondary after the death of Paul Dana during the practice session.
The question that was immediately raised: Should the race go on following his death?
The mentality of all race car drivers, no matter what happens, is that they always would want the race to go on. Sunday, it went on in honor of Paul Dana.
I told Brian Barnhart, the IRL's president and chief operating officer, that I understand tradition has been to have a Sunday morning practice session. But I asked him if he's ever thought about taking that Sunday morning practice and completely eliminating it? Is there a need for it any longer? After all, the drivers had all-day practice sessions on Friday and Saturday, and with the engine rule Honda has in place, nobody's changing engines.
You have a 20-car field right now, everybody is amped up, the cars are qualified and everything is pretty well prepared for the race. It seems to me you run the risk of losing two or three cars for the race if someone crashes during practice.
In my opinion, Barnhart's really thinking about eliminating Sunday morning practice sessions. He's a dominant leader, very open-minded, and wants everything as safe as it possibly can be for the drivers and the sport. If I were a betting man, I'd say Barnhart will eliminate the Sunday practice sessions -- effective immediately. They might have to alter that policy for road courses, but for an event like Homestead, where the drivers had plenty of practice, there's really no need for it. Barnhart is a smart guy and he'll tailor the decision to the needs of the series.
A terrible tragedy happened. The drivers realize they lost one of their own, and that was on their minds. But, as a driver, when you step into the car and get into that zone, all of a sudden your focus goes to the job at hand. Sunday's race turned out to be one of the greatest finishes in IRL history. But as soon as the race ended, a driver goes back to what previously happened. That's always the case.
There's the drama of the race finish, followed by a sense of calmness. And that came so fast for winner Dan Wheldon. As soon as he crossed the finish line, his mind went right back to Paul Dana. He hit the radio button and said, "Guys, it was a great race but it's not time to celebrate."
As for the race itself, what impressed me most was how fast the cars run and how close they run at these enormous speeds. They were averaging 215 mph, and Wheldon and Helio Castroneves were coming down the front straightaway touching so often that they scraped the "Firestone" lettering off the side of their tires. You must have a lot of nerve and trust in your competitor to run at that speed, side by side, lap after lap. I had goose bumps down my arms.
As we move on to this week's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Wheldon has to be considered one of the favorites. The specialized road racers are going to have an advantage, especially Castroneves, one of the word's great road racing drivers. You also have to mention Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti as favorites. But Wheldon and Scott Dixon won last month's 24 Hours of Daytona (a road course built inside the speedway), so they would have to be considered among the favorites as well.
My picks this week would be Castroneves, Wheldon and Dixon in a photo finish. Wheldon is a little bitty guy with a heavy right foot and nerves to match. I told team owner Chip Ganassi that hiring Wheldon was the smartest money he ever spent in his life.
Former Cup champion Rusty Wallace will provide coverage for ESPN and ABC during this year's IndyCar Series and selected Nextel Cup races.