Wheldon to become test dummy for IndyCar
Dan Wheldon went into the IndyCar season hoping to land a full-time ride and didn’t get one. He won the Indianapolis 500 a second time and still found himself watching.
Wheldon kept busy doing an admirable job as a color commentator for IndyCar races, but it’s not the same as being behind the wheel.
Now after two months of idling, Wheldon has found a way to climb back into the cockpit, working for the team he won Indy with to test drive the prototype cars IndyCar will use in 2012.
That’s right, the reigning Indianapolis 500 champion is going to be a test dummy.
“Test dummy, that’s a good one. I like that,” Wheldon said. “That’s what I’m going to call myself: Test dummy.”
Actually, it’s much bigger deal than that, which is why 2005 IndyCar Series champion is taking it so seriously.
Teaming with Bryan Herta Autosport, Wheldon the will spend most of August and September behind the wheel of IndyCar’s next generation cars.
IndyCar awarded the new chassis design to longtime partner Dallara for the 2012 season after accepting bids from five manufacturers, though a variety of companies will provide aero kits for the new chassis. IndyCar also announced a new engine platform last year, one that allows a variety of engine types from a variety of manufacturers.
Honda, Chevrolet and Lotus have signed on to provide engines for 2012, but Honda’s V-6 will be the only engine in early testing because it’s the first of the three turbocharged models available.
Testing won’t be quite like rubbing tires with the likes of Dario Franchitti and Will Power on the bricks at Indy, but it is important for the series as a whole, not just one driver.
“It’s, for me, a job that I’m going to take very, very seriously,” Wheldon said. “I’m thankful to the IndyCar Series for giving me the opportunity, but there’s a lot you have to undertake. We need to make sure that the product that the IndyCar Series puts out toward the end of this year, beginning of 2012, is something that primarily the fans get very excited about, but also the teams and drivers. And obviously we want to make sure that the product we put out is incredibly safe.”
The testing program will hit every type of track IndyCars race, from short ovals to speedways to road and street courses, along with Indianapolis.
Herta Autosport will use the crew that won at Indy with Wheldon, which should make for a smooth transition into the testing program and, they hope, into a full 2012 season.
“We’re pretty happy with where we’re at right now,” Herta said. “We haven’t signed with any particular manufacturer or anything, and really I think we have to be little judicious about how and when we do that because right now we’ve got to focus on the test program that’s been put in front of us and make sure that we’re doing a good job for everybody involved in that.”
Even with the same team together, it won’t be an easy process.
The schedule will be rigorous, with testing almost on a weekly basis during the two-month span and spread across the country so the car can be tested on all types of circuits. And while the team will try to duplicate race-day conditions, it won’t quite be the same without the other cars and the constant checking and re-checking to make sure everything’s holding up.
“It’s a very tedious process,” said Herta Autosport co-owner Steve Newey. “It can be, at times, downright boring, frankly, because you’re not out there competing and racing against other teams and other drivers. So it’s about accumulating miles and confirming the structural integrity of all the components that are highly stressed and it’s a very methodical approach.”
Wheldon and Herta Autosport are eyeing a full season in 2012, but might try to hook up for the season finale in Las Vegas in a one-off situation like they had at Indy.
IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard created a unique opportunity for the Nov. 12 race, allowing up to five drivers from outside the circuit a chance to earn $5 million if they can win the race.
Wheldon isn’t sure if he’d be eligible for the big prize, but would certainly love the opportunity to chase after it if given the chance, particularly after having all that extra time with his team during testing.
“If they did make me eligible would be, it would certainly make for a very exciting race,” he said. “I think it would definitely attract a lot of fans because realistically I think there’s a chance it could happen. And when there’s that kind of realistic chance, I think fans are going to kind of be on the edge of their seat.”
Win that race and Wheldon might finally have a seat of his own.