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IndyCar: Fontana weekend analysis, musings and observations

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FONTANA, Calif. – The 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series season is in the books, and while we’ll have plenty of offseason and postseason coverage on MotorSportsTalk, we take a quick look back at the weekend itself at Auto Club Speedway:

  • It’s about time. The prevailing sentiment in the paddock Saturday night was that the right two guys won. Will Power finally got his championship, and after a second half of the season that should have produced at least one if not two wins, Tony Kanaan finally got on the board in the 10 car for Chip Ganassi Racing.
  • We got lucky. Friday night’s accident involving Russian rookie Mikhail Aleshin nearly cast a dark shadow over the remainder of the weekend, although mercifully, Aleshin is beginning his recovery process. The track already has a sore spot for some after Greg Moore’s fatal accident in 1999. Perhaps the scariest part I saw from the video footage, after re-watching and after his car came back to the track from its time careening along the catch fencing, was that his head was seriously far forward in the cockpit, way beyond where it ordinarily would have been under normal crash circumstances. Looking into the crash, the fencing, the cockpit protection and the results of said crash should be added to the offseason to-do list for INDYCAR, if it hasn’t been already.
  • Cautious, clean driving prevailed. I doubt few of the remaining 21 drivers would admit it publicly, but after the Aleshin/Charlie Kimball accident on Friday there wasn’t the same sense of going for broke for Saturday night’s 500-mile race. What followed was a methodical race that, like the other oval races this year, largely depended on how well the drivers managed their tires. Speed dropoff was evident over a stint, usually about 6-7 mph per lap and particularly after the first 10 laps. There also wasn’t the frequency of “wow!” moments the same as a year ago. You could probably put a lot of that down to Power’s cautious but clean opening half of the race, and Carlos Munoz not running the low line as he did last year. Other than Power’s launch to the front after the race’s lone restart, there were few audible gasps, and perhaps that was a good thing.
  • “Fontana flu” strikes again. Mike Conway stepped out of A.J. Foyt’s No. 14 prior to the 2012 race at Fontana; E.J. Viso got sick a year ago and missed the Fontana finale as well for Andretti Autosport. This year, although he competed in all practice sessions and qualifying, Dale Coyne Racing rookie Carlos Huertas retired after 21 laps with dizziness, per the team. The reason out actually shifted on timing & scoring from “Medical” to “Driver Illness” during the race. It marks the second time this season (Iowa) the young Colombian has retired for this reason. Huertas has been a mostly positive surprise throughout 2014 but never got fully comfortable on the ovals, other than Indianapolis. To this point, neither Conway nor Viso has driven another IndyCar oval race again (although Viso temporarily filled in for James Hinchcliffe in Indianapolis 500 practice), and it remains to be seen whether this will hold true for Huertas.
  • If it wasn’t for bad luck… then James Hinchcliffe would have had none at all. The Canadian had a pit speed violation mid-race that took him out of a potential podium, if not winning position. He fought back to fifth by race’s end but all told it was a year where seemingly nothing went right for the driver of the No. 27 United Fiber & Data Honda car, even though the pace and chemistry seemed to be there.
  • The Fontana date conundrum. Three years into the return of IndyCar at Auto Club Speedway, there hasn’t yet been the perfect balance of time, date, temperature or buzz. If we’re honest, ACS is one of the few big ovals that can work – and work well – for IndyCar. It isn’t high banked (only 14 degrees in the corners), there’s no pack racing, and it works well as a 500-mile event that ties nicely with history in the area (dating to the old Ontario Motor Speedway days). The Verizon IndyCar Series has put on three good, if not great, races here the last three years. Yet the sanctioning body has moved the race date three straight years; it may do so again in 2015; and it was hard to accurately gauge both the number of fans live on site and who stayed up late to the finish past 1 a.m. ET. Meanwhile, an IndyCar promotional event for fans at The Grove at LA Live Thursday was good in theory but not necessarily in execution – watching Power, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud ride bicycles to make smoothies doesn’t exactly scream “go watch us race at 220 mph 50 miles east of here, where it’s way hotter.” It behooves both IndyCar and ACS to make this race work, and MAVTV’s sponsorship for two more years is huge, but there just doesn’t feel the proper spark that this race is as big a deal as it could be. We know ACS is trying; local promotion by the track president Gillian Zucker and her staff has been solid.
  • Some final thoughts. I get the frustration about the 7:20 p.m. PT start time and the resulting late evening on the east coast, but for the fans on site, baking in 100+ degree heat for three+ hours also would suck. And the drivers would be blind going into Turn 3 at 220+ mph. The start time saw the track, the series and the TV partner make the best of the circumstances, and even despite the late end, the rating didn’t kill off the year-on-year NBCSN gains. … Takuma Sato ended sixth, and after a season-best fourth in Sonoma just before, he’s ended the year on a very positive note. … Conor Daly and Daniel Abt made the rounds this weekend and while Abt has a busy fall lined up between GP2 and FIA Formula E, Daly will be full speed ahead on attempting to secure an IndyCar ride. I’ll say it once again, Daly and Sage Karam would be ideal to have as young Americans full-time. … For Power to have to hear a question about whether he wanted to go to F1 in the press conference was something of a joke. The questioner has been reprimanded by other series before this year, and at a certain point, IndyCar needs to step in and put a stop to it.

We thank you for reading our season-long Verizon IndyCar Series coverage here on MotorSportsTalk, and as mentioned, there will still be plenty to come throughout the offseason.

Conor Daly’s IndyCar gets painted

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Conor Daly
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Conor Daly will compete full-time in the Verizon IndyCar Series this year in a ride for Dale Coyne Racing.

Daly will make laps in the No. 18 Honda sponsored by Jonathan Byrd’s. The 24-year-old driver tweeted out a picture today of his race car getting painted for the season, which starts on March 13.

Daly has six IndyCar races under his belt so far.

USF2000 reintroduces National Class for 2016

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The National Class is officially back in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda series for 2016.

Yes, when Eric Filgueiras and Spencer Racing announced they’d be in the National Class, that kind of gave it away that the class would be back without it being formally introduced.

Luckily though, the series has released the news today. A formal release is below:

Drivers seeking to make their way onto the Mazda Road to Indy now have an alternate, lower-cost route onto the first rung, the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, with today’s confirmation that the National Class will be returning in 2016.

The Mazda Road to Indy is unique in the world of auto racing, offering a scholarship-funded path all the way from karting via USF2000, the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires to the Verizon IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500.

Eligible to drivers at least 20 years of age before or during the 2016 season, the National Class will be open to all Sports Car Club of America-legal FC (Formula Continental) cars, from any chassis manufacturer, dating back to 2000. Any aerodynamic devices approved by the SCCA are permitted, although in the interests of safety all cars must be fitted with a nosebox crash structure, wheel tethers, Staubli devices, approved head surrounds and seats and yellow light system as required by all other current USF2000 cars.

Cars will be permitted to run either the same 2.0-liter Mazda MZR engine per the USF2000 Championship Class regulations or sealed 2.0-liter Ford Zetec motors as prepared by Elite Engines or Quicksilver RacEngines with National Class mapping. Any SCCA-legal 6″ and 8″ wheels may be used, although all cars must run on Cooper tires.

Entry fees will be discounted 50 percent below the Championship Class rate, and each race winner will earn a free entry for an upcoming event in the same season. The second-place finisher will claim a 50 percent reduction in the entry fee for an upcoming race. In addition, race winners equipped with the MZR engine will take home a $1,000 award from Mazda.

As an added benefit and based on a minimum average car count of five entries per race weekend, the 2016 National Class champion will receive an “entry ticket” to the Mazda Road to Indy $200K Scholarship Shootout in the fall of this year where champions of select junior level-open wheel and karting series from around the world will compete for a Mazda scholarship to enter the USF2000 Championship Class in 2017.

The point system will be the same used by the Masters Class (formerly Expert Class) in the Pro Mazda championship.

“We are excited to bring back the National Class and allow drivers to sample the Mazda Road to Indy,” said Dan Andersen, Owner and CEO of Andersen Promotions. “RC Enerson began his path on the ladder system in the National Class. It’s a great first step onto the platform for many drivers, and we are excited to offer this year’s champion an entry into the Shootout as well as a full-season entry package to USF2000 in 2017 in either the Championship or National Class.”

The Mazda Road to Indy will head to Barber Motorsport Park for Spring Training on March 5 (Indy Lights) and 6/7 (USF2000/Pro Mazda). The 2016 season will kick off on the Streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., on March 11-13 in support of the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Report: Scott Tucker arrested by FBI in payday lending scheme

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - JANUARY 30:  The #95 Level 5 Motorsports BMW Riley driven by Scott Tucker, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Richard Westbrook and Raphael Matos during The Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway on January 30, 2011 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images)
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For four years from 2010 to 2013, Scott Tucker and Level 5 Motorsports were American Le Mans Series regulars, first in the Prototype Challenge class and then the LMP2 class. They won, a lot, and were a regular championship-contending effort, plus those who worked for the team had nothing but positive things to say about the operation that was run.

That said, the funding of the team was always perpetually questioned, as Tucker was always allegedly involved within the payday lending business, and had reportedly abusive practices towards customers.

This has been something of a bubbling story for five years but per Reuters, on Wednesday, Tucker and one of his lawyers were arrested by the FBI for their alleged exploitation.

Per Reuters, an indictment filed in Manhattan federal court outlined millions that went to Tucker, who then used it for various luxury items. Allegedly, more than $67 million went to the Level 5 Motorsports race team.

Level 5’s last IMSA series start came under the unified TUDOR United SportsCar Championship umbrella in January 2014, when the team won the Rolex 24 at Daytona in the GT Daytona class. The team withdrew from the championship following that race.

Social Roundup: IndyCar tests at Sonoma, Fontana

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Simon Pagenaud
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There has been an awakening. Have you felt it?

The engines of the Verizon IndyCar Series have roared back to life this week, a month before the season opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

After a test at Phoenix International Raceway two days ago, two more tests are occurring today in California, at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana and at Sonoma Raceway.

At Auto Cub Speedway is Ryan Hunter-Reay, Carlos Munoz and James Hinchcliffe.

In Sonoma is the entirety of the Chip Ganassi Racing team and Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud from Team Penske.

Here’s a look at how the day is progressing at each test through social media. We’ll update throughout the day. If you’re attending either test, tweet us pictures at @MotorSportsTalk or @danielmcfadin of how you’re taking in the beginning of the 2016 season.

Sonoma Raceway

Auto Club Speedway