Looking back at a wild west showdown in Fontana

With a record 83 lead changes over the course of 500 miles, yesterday’s MavTV 500 was  one of the wildest IndyCar races in recent memory and arguably one of the best races of the season. The race has pushed IndyCar well into cyberspace with the race being one of the highest trending topics on Twitter and whether fans and the pundits love it or hate it, people are talking about it.

Leading into the race weekend, some drivers (notably Juan Pablo Montoya) expressed concerns on Friday in criticism of the increased downforce settings by IndyCar for this race weekend to compensate for the higher temperatures in late June.

Obviously, pack racing has been a concern in IndyCar racing since the accident in October of 2011 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that claimed the life of former champion Dan Wheldon.

From the drop of the green flag, it seemed that Montoya’s prediction may have been correct… to a degree. The field was close together from the start of the race, but after 15-20 laps or so the field would string out and start to separate. The field would however pack back together after one driver made a move for the lead as a bigger hole in the air was punched.

I would surmise that the racing we saw yesterday is what I could best define as a de-evolution of pack racing. There was three wide racing aplenty, occasionally four wide and a five wide moment at one point too. While the cars ran close together, the drivers had control of the cars and were not stuck together to the same degree of the IRL pack racing era.

A few drivers made some aggressive and evasive moves, but to agree with what series champ Will Power said, the package that IndyCar gave created that kind of racing.

Another difference in this form of racing was the track itself. Auto Club Speedway was designed with open wheel cars in mind where most of the 1.5 mile ovals across the country were designed with NASCAR in mind. Or they have been revamped to include progressive banking mostly to favor the stock cars.

That being said, there was much more room to race and multiple lines to run on, but the racing was still tight.

With the close racing comes the potential for the bad accident like what happened in Las Vegas in 2011. All it takes is one wrong move and a big wreck can happen.

Takuma Sato and Will Power’s accident looked benign despite hitting a wall void of any SAFER Barrier, but as the white flag was flying, a worse wreck broke out as Ryan Briscoe flipped in the frontstretch grass following a chain reaction wreck with Ryan Hunter-Reay. Thankfully, Briscoe walked away unhurt and even made a candid video posted on Youtube visiting the scene of the accident long afterword. Still, the wreck only included two cars as did two of the caution flags while the other one was a single car accident.

The paddock’s reaction to the race has been mixed with all the drivers making very valid points. Tony Kanaan, Will Power, Tim Cindric and Juan Pablo Montoya were all very vocal in their stance that pack racing is just too much and all alluded to the Vegas tragedy as a cruel reminder of the dangers of it.

“What are we doing? What ARE we doing? You went in and told them it would be pack racing and that was a Vegas situation right there. I’m so happy that no one was really hurt. Someone’s got to take responsibility for how this day panned out. As exciting as it is, it’s insane because you can’t get away.” -Will Power

Power’s comments are nearly the same words uttered by racing greats like Jackie Stewart and Emerson Fittipaldi 40 years ago, but where is the fine line between putting on a great show and the safety of your greatest asset, your drivers?

There were a number of drivers that found the racing to be fun. Ed Carpenter said via Twitter:

I love close @IndyCar racing. Hate to see drivers bad mouthing a series. If You want to race, race. If not, retire.

The series cannot take another fatality, the human loss would be tragic, but the damage of the series public image would be irreparable.

Sure, you can never make all the drivers happy and racing is never going to be completely safe, but avoiding a potential Vegas 2011 situation has been done over the last few years with the DW-12 chassis and producing great racing in the process.

Was this race too much? I wouldn’t say so, but it was pretty close at best. The race got strung out eventually and 134 consecutive laps were run without incident, but once the race came down to the wire is when the racing got harder and the accidents occurred.

The Penalty

The non-penalty on Graham Rahal’s pit crew mishap on his early pit stop has stirred up a ton of controversy, to say the very least. Yes, the fuel man made the mistake by putting the fuel nozzle in the car a second time as he was leaving. Making matters worse, the debris from the buckeye fell out of the car and brought out a debris caution.

The problem that I see with this scenario is the continuing problem that has plagued race control the entire season: handing out penalties mid week rather than in the race, which is merely a slap on the wrist. Derrick Walker’s explanation on live television simply just re-iterated that notion. It is inconsistent with most motorsport sanctioning bodies’ standard operating procedure but this is what IndyCar’s SOP has become in 2015.

The difference between this penalty and other penalties for contact with pit equipment (Juan Pablo Montoya’s contact with an air hose at the Indianapolis 500 cost him $500) is that the debris from the broken nozzle fell onto the racing surface and thus brought out a debris caution.

Then again, had Rahal not come back to win the race, there probably wouldn’t be so much fuss over it.

The Crowd

With four different dates in four years, this year Auto Club Speedway was given the worst possible date for a race: in the middle of the summer in southern California. A sparse crowd of only around 5,000 people showed up to watch what turned out to be a truly entertaining race.

It is depressing to see such a small fan turnout especially when the event had some momentum following its first two runnings. The potential to have a successful race was in the making with the race as the season finale but moving the race to Labor Day weekend last year because the Boston Consulting Group suggested it killed the attendance and thus led to the even more dismal showing yesterday.

It is known that Dave Allen, president of Auto Club Speedway, wants to have IndyCar back at ACS, but only if they move it back to the fall. Title sponsor MavTV has one more year left on their contract, but then again Shell and Pennzoil had a long term agreement with the Grand Prix of Houston but that agreement also came to an early end due to a similar circumstance: moving the race to the summer in a hot and humid climate killed the attendance.

So whether or not the Verizon IndyCar Series returns to Auto Club Speedway will remain to be seen in the next few months.

Conclusion

Still what one of the most amazing things about yesterday’s race was that all 23 drivers drove inches apart for nearly two and a half hours and put on a dazzling show. We were lucky that everyone walked away at the end of the day and a long overdue driver returned to victory lane, amid a bit of controversy.

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Josh Farmer joined the media center in 2012 after first discovering his love of IndyCar racing in 2004 at Auto Club Speedway. He has been an accredited member of the IndyCar media center since 2014 and also contributes to IndyCar.com along with The Motorsports Tribune.

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