The defining characteristic of the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway, site of tonight’s IZOD IndyCar Series season finale, the MAVTV 500 (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra) are the seams in the race track.
The Fontana oval is far from billiard-table smooth and the seams are slight bumps in the road – particularly in the corners – that can upset the car’s balance. When Will Power crashed out in last year’s race, it was because he’d hit a seam in-between Turns 1 and 2, lost control of his car and smacked the wall.
Drivers throughout the 25-car field described the challenge of the seams here.
Oriol Servia of Panther Racing is one of the most experienced drivers at Fontana, having competed in the CART races here in 2000 through 2002, last year’s INDYCAR-sanctioned race, and Indy Lights races there in the 1990s.
“They’re bad, but to be honest it’s not the seams, it’s the paint used to cover the seams,” he explained. “It was different 5 or 6 years ago. If the paint wasn’t there it would be different. Yeah, the seams were always there but not the paint between them.”
Defending series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay – in his last ride with the No. 1 car this season for Andretti Autosport – added that the paint or tar is more what upsets the car than the seams.
“They were treacherous last year and are again now,” he said. “As stiffly sprung as these cars are, there’s not much suspension movement. I drove a Chevy Corvette pace car earlier in the week and those things looked like canyons. It’s a rough ride and car placement is a big deal.”
Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing’s Charlie Kimball said if drivers “straddle” the seams, it can upset the car.
“If you straddle them, it’s just like a vacuum cleaner, it throws a dust cloud up and a lot of sand, so it can kill the radiators,” he said. “You deal with it more in the heat though and the cooler temperatures this year should help.”
Hunter-Reay’s Andretti Autosport teammate James Hinchcliffe called the seams “unique,” while Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing sophomore Josef Newgarden and Dragon Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais thought it depends more on car setup.
Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports’ Simon Pagenaud didn’t sell the seams short, but said the concern about them is negated if the car is setup just right.
“We have a really good race car so it’s not an issue for us. Ultimate pace isn’t tremendous but we’re consistent over the long stints, which is what you need here,” he said.