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.

NHRA: Brittany Force cleared to race this weekend in Phoenix after bad wreck 2 weeks ago

Photo: John Force Racing
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Drag racing is a Force family tradition. So, too, is not keeping a Force family member down.

Just 12 days after the most serious wreck of her six-year drag racing career, Brittany Force and John Force Racing announced late Thursday afternoon that the defending 2017 NHRA Top Fuel champion has been medically cleared and will indeed race in this weekend’s NHRA Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in suburban Phoenix, Arizona.

“I flew into Phoenix early this (Thursday) morning and headed straight out to the race track to meet up with my team,” Force said. “I suited up and got belted back into my car that I ran all last season.

“It honestly felt good to be strapped back in and I was surprised how comfortable I was. I’m looking forward to getting back in my car tomorrow (Friday’s first two rounds of qualifying) and getting back in the swing of things with my guys.”

The 31-year-old Force, one of four daughters of 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force, suffered a concussion and bruising after the hard crash she was involved in on February 11 in the first round of eliminations of the season-opening NHRA Lucas Oil Winternationals in Pomona, California.

Shortly after leaving the starting line in a race vs. Terry Haddock, Force’s dragster crossed from the right to left lanes, impacted the retaining wall with a very hard lateral crash, bounced off, spun, went on its side and briefly caught fire after crossing the finish line wheels-up.

While she is still recovering from the bruising, Force feels strong enough to get back behind the wheel. Getting back in the race car could be the best medicine of all, since she has three runner-up finishes in Phoenix, including back-to-back second-place showings in both the 2016 and 2017 national events.

The three-day event kicks off Friday with qualifying rounds at 4 and 6:30 p.m. ET, the same times as Saturday’s qualifying. Final eliminations begin at 1 p.m. ET Sunday.