By Josh Farmer, IndyCar Reporter
Author’s note: This is part of a 10-part series discussing tracks around the world that I feel would be a good fit for the Verizon IndyCar Series. The opinions here are expressed solely of the author and not necessarily of the Motorsports Tribune.
While Auto Club Speedway only had a relatively short stint in Indy car racing history, it has rightfully earned its place at the top of the list.
The 2-mile Speedway located in Fontana, California opened in 1997 on the site of the former Kaiser Steel Mill. The Penske Corporation designed and built the facility with Indy cars in mind.
That Penske charm was seen immediately as fans were greeted to one of the best facilities built in its generation.
Fans were referred to as guests and were escorted from the parking lot to the main grandstands, and the grounds were maintained as immaculately as a Disney theme park.
That same feeling was felt when the CART World Series roared in for their first race at the new facility, the season ending Marlboro 500. After the first day of practice and qualifying, one thing was apparent – the track was fast, very fast.
PacWest Racing driver Mauricio Gugelmin clocked the fastest lap on a closed course in a race session at 240.942 mph. His teammate, Mark Blundell, would go on to win the 500-mile race in what would be his only win on an oval.
The 1999 running started with great excitement but ended in great sorrow. Promising young Canadian driver Greg Moore died following a horrific accident on lap nine just weeks after signing with Team Penske.
Juan Pablo Montoya and Dario Franchitti were in a close bout for the championship and danced around each other for the majority of the race. Ultimately, Franchitti lost a lug nut on a pit stop which allowed Montoya to take the championship.
The 2000 round saw Gil de Ferran pull off the perfect weekend by first blistering Gugelmin’s record lap to take the pole at 241.428 mph and would go on to finish ahead of title-rival Adrian Fernandez to capture his first Indy car championship.
Along with its sister track in Brooklyn, Michigan, ACS provided some of the best racing that CART had to offer. With the Handford Device punching a hole in the air, passing for the lead was rampant with a record 75 lead changes taking place in 2001.
In 2002, the Indy Racing League came in and shared the track with CART. Sam Hornish, Jr. held off Jacques Lazier, younger brother of 1996 Indianapolis 500 winner Buddy, to win the IRL event while Jimmy Vasser out-dueled fellow American Michael Andretti for the win in the CART 500.
That proved to be the final CART race at ACS as the 2003 running was cancelled due to wildfires near the track.
The IRL took its place until 2005 and provided a couple of memorable races including 2004 when Adrian Fernandez nipped Tony Kanaan at the line by 0.018 of a second. The win was redeeming for both as Kanaan clinched his first series championship with the second place finish. Andretti Green Racing celebrated in style by doing donuts on the backstretch near where Moore crashed in 1999.
The IRL quietly left in 2005 and it was not until Randy Bernard took the reigns of IndyCar in 2010 that talks began to resurface about a return. Both parties agreed in late 2011 to come back the 2012 season. The race then became the season finale and returned to its traditional 500-mile format along with a title sponsor in Lucas Oil’s MavTV Motorsports Network.
The return proved to be solid as a decent crowd of 30,000 turned out to watch the fierce championship battle between Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay come down to the wire. Power crashed out on lap 56. Hunter-Reay couldn’t rest easy as he still had to finish seventh or better to take the title.
The American finished fourth and cleared Power by three points.
For 2013, the race was pushed back to October to compensate for cooler temperatures. The change worked as the spectator count increased and they were once again treated to a championship duel, this time between Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves.
The championship fight was just the tip of the iceberg as the 2013 MavTV 500 could be summarized as a cross between Death Race 2000 and Road Warrior. The race had its share of three wide racing as well as massive attention. The survival rate shrank to nine cars at the finish as 16 cars dropped out due to accidents or engine failures and in the end, Power claimed his first 500-mile win.
Dixon prevailed in the championship battle as Castroneves was given a penalty for entering a closed pit on lap 212, which proved to be too much to bear.
2014 saw a major drop-off in attendance as the race was moved to less than ideal Labor Day weekend to accommodate IndyCar’s schedule realignment. Another title fight was in the works – this time between Team Penske teammates Power and Castroneves, along with Simon Pagenaud, who drove for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports at the time.
Power managed to survive the 500-mile contest and take the championship with ease while Kanaan led a Chip Ganassi Racing 1-2 win.
As a result of the low fan turnout, Auto Club Speedway officials wanted to change dates. This meant surrendering the season finale date for an even less than ideal date in 2015 – June 27.
Searing hot Southern California temperatures greeted IndyCar in June, but that set the stage for one of the best races in the near century of American open wheel racing.
What IndyCar put on display that day could not be described in just one word. Fast, scary, competitive, tight, crazy – those are just a few that can describe those 500 miles. The 23-car field ran in close quarters for much of the day with the lead changing hands a record 80 times over the 250-lap contest.
A late yellow for debris set up a 24 lap battle to the finish. With no tires or fuel needed for the finish, drivers took no mercy and put on one of the best shows in motorsport. Ryan Briscoe, who was subbing for the injured James Hinchcliffe, led the majority of the final laps ahead of Kanaan, Power, Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal.
Power was eliminated in a crash with Takuma Sato which set up a two lap shootout for the win. A handful of drivers pitted for fresh tires just before the green. Rahal made his No. 15 Mi-Jack Honda super wide and even pinched Andretti down below the white line while defending the lead. As the drivers approached the white flag, Sage Karam and Montoya came together with Hunter-Reay.
Hunter-Reay collided with Briscoe and spun into the infield grass. Briscoe flew through the air and landed nose down in the grass before flipping wildly down the frontstretch. Briscoe emerged from the mess unharmed while Rahal claimed the victory over Kanaan and Andretti.
In the weeks following the race, Auto Club Speedway and IndyCar then talked about a season finale return in September or October.
Ultimately, both sides wanted two different things – IndyCar wanted a day race for television purposes while ACS wanted a night race to accommodate its fans.
Neither side could come to an agreement and on August 14, the series announced that they would not return to the venue.
So after this long soap opera, the $1 million question is –
The racing product speaks for itself. The track can accommodate the spread out racing we saw in 2012-13 as well as the crazy pack racing we saw in 2015. Several drivers and pundits expressed concern following the 2015 race of the safety of the racing, given IndyCar having some very tough times with pack racing – a la Las Vegas 2011.
ACS was designed for Indy cars and has multiple racing grooves to keep things from getting over the line. Whether or not you loved or hated the 2015 race, the bottom line is that the interest generated by the race was nothing short of astounding. That would have led to more interest the next time around which leads me to my next point – what is a good date?
The season finale dates in the CART era of 1997-2000 were easy sellouts, but in the current IndyCar era crowds only reached around 40,000 or so which in relative terms is successful for IndyCar today. The drama brought on by a 500-mile race on an oval is unique in and of itself which adds value to the battle at hand.
Think of it this way, 40-80 lead changes at ACS vs 0 lead changes at the current season finale of Sonoma Raceway where passing is extremely difficult is a much more compelling show.
Stat wise, the track has the record for the fastest lap in an official qualifying session, most leaders, most lead changes and fastest 500 mile race ever – even the great Indianapolis Motor Speedway cannot say that.
Dave Allen, track president at Auto Club Speedway, confirmed to the Motorsports Tribune in May that the door is still open for IndyCar, but talks have not happened as of yet.
The story is also much of the same as Allen re-confirmed earlier this week as he added that he is also willing to host the series in a scenario that works best for everybody.
“If the stars align and IndyCar has a desire to return to Auto Club Speedway I’m sure we could work something out,” Allen told Motorsports Tribune.
Allen took over ACS in late 2014 and was in absolute awe by the show that IndyCar put on in 2015 and only wants more of it.
“I don’t think words can describe what we saw,” he said. “I have seen countless races in person and on television over the years and that had to rank as one of the best I’ve seen. I think that’s what makes it so hard not to see them racing here.”
All things considered, Allen acknowledges that everything would have to work for everybody in order for it to come together.
“The stats are wonderful and the racing is second to none but it would need to make business sense for both parties including the teams and their partners,” he said.
Jay Frye, IndyCar’s president of competition and operations, has brokered some deals for IndyCar to return to two International Speedway Corporation tracks – Phoenix and Watkins Glen. While that does sound promising for a return, that does not mean it will happen. Allen is encouraged by the progress that Frye has made. He also admitted that while it is tough being outside looking in, seeing the company’s bottom line improve is a very good thing.
“It’s important to ISC and the motorsports industry to see a strong and healthy IndyCar,” he said. “We will do whatever we can to help them move forward at our venues, if that means sitting on the sidelines while our sister tracks have great events then that’s what we’ll do for now.”