Saturday afternoon at Auto Club Speedway captured both all that was right and nearly all that could go wrong in the Verizon IndyCar Series in 250 laps, 500 miles, and nearly three hours of hysteria.
I’m on assignment at another race event this weekend, but I was firmly on the edge of my seat – by which I mean, hotel bed or comfy chair – some 2,500-plus miles away from Fontana, Calif. outside of Watkins Glen, N.Y.
That said, remote covering the MAVTV 500 race provided the widest – and perhaps weirdest – range of emotions I’ve had watching an IndyCar race in some time.
This year marks my 20th as a fan, and 10th as a reporter, overall and I can’t really begin to say which was the overriding emotion I had coming out of the day.
To start, there was amazement. After three-plus years of tinkering with the oval package since the introduction of the Dallara DW12 chassis in 2012, it looked as though INDYCAR – the sanctioning body – got the balance perfect this weekend at Fontana.
The racing was so intense because it captured everything that could be good about this new era of racing: the wheel-to-wheel racing but not slingshot-inspired passing; the downforce level, which was high but not too high; the tire fall off, courtesy of Firestone’s efforts; and the track itself, which with its varying degrees of banking, seams and lines always seems to produce great racing – for both IndyCar and NASCAR.
The North American open-wheel record number of lead changes, 80 split among 14 drivers, was proof positive of that.
Then, there was anxiousness. Recall we haven’t had an IndyCar “pack race” in standard “pack racing” format since that disastrous day at Las Vegas in October 2011. It was one of the most jarring moments of my career; that day, on site, I stood in Dan Wheldon’s pit box listening in on his radio.
To say there were nerves today for me would be an accurate statement, and again, this is coming only from a reporter in a hotel room. So I can only begin to imagine the sensitivity and concern faced by drivers who were in that canceled debacle of a race and were racing again on Saturday, or were watching from afar and commenting on social media. Hell, by circumstances outside of their control we had aces and race winners like Justin Wilson and James Hinchcliffe on Twitter during the race, instead of driving in it.
Or their significant others. We occasionally forget this sport is about families, and when you are out there running inches, millimeters apart at 215 mph and the slightest mistake happens, it’s not just a driver you could lose. It’s someone’s dad. Or brother. Or son. Or nephew. Or name your other family role here.
Was yesterday’s pack racing in the “Vegas 2011 pack racing” sense? To me, I have to say no. It flirted with disaster… it came the closest we’ve seen to it in the DW12 era.
However, at no point were the cars clumped to the point where they were stuck running two or three-wide for five or six consecutive laps, even though there were hair-raising moments of four or even five-wide. It had scary potential, but not scary stagnation, if that makes sense.
The thing about Vegas was, you had an overriding fear something bad was going to happen. In Fontana, on Saturday, it was a case where something bad could happen, but only if the stints were too short and the drivers too aggressive. So when the accidents started occurring when it got down to crunch time, yes, it looked bad. But that forgets 136 laps of clean, green-flag racing to open the day nearing 90-degree temperatures, which should not be overlooked.
More pressing to me, quite honestly, was anger. It was hidden by my excitement of watching the race, but then you looked around at the grandstands and thought the number of people watching on social media rivaled, if not exceeded, the actual number of rear ends in the seats on site.
This was one of IndyCar’s best ever oval races, certainly the best I’ve seen since flag-to-flag the 2001 Michigan 500 where Patrick Carpentier emerged as a popular first-time winner edging Dario Franchitti and Michel Jourdain Jr. (yes, the last four or five Indy 500s count but for my money I’ll take that Michigan race years later).
Not that this has any correlation, but there is a freaky and weird potential similarity that could rise from this – that Michigan race was the last under CART sanction there before the IRL (now IndyCar) took over in 2002. And that Michigan race was remembered for having great racing, but a small crowd (likely a bigger one than Saturday though).
The Toronto date change has thrown the second half of the 2015 IndyCar schedule into absolute chaos. We’ve come off a fatigue-ridden 10 week in a row stretch, then head west to Fontana for a 500-miler on a Saturday afternoon, in late June, then have four of the final five races have to sell their product with yet another date change.
I’ve said it since the start of the year. The second half schedule shift will look horrendous when all is said and done, and you see grandstands looking that empty. Optics are everything, and while you can make 5,000 or 10,000 patrons look acceptable on a street course when you only have two or three erected grandstands, you can’t make a similar number look good in a 75,000 or 80,000-seat arena.
The fourth is that of being stupefied. I’ll give a hat tip to my friend and colleague Steve Wittich for noting as a rare voice of calm in a sea of hysteria on social media during the race, that the decision to have a post-race penalty applied to Graham Rahal would be consistent with others issued by INDYCAR this year. He’ll sort the stats on that.
Again though, it comes down to optics. The optics of a guy – Rahal or whoever else – leaving the pit with a broken fuel buckeye and then having said buckeye do its own disappearing act on the track to cause a yellow but not get an in-race penalty leaves a black mark for the series. It adds to cries of inconsistency for Race Control, which is strictly a perception problem if not an actual one, based on the precedent established earlier this year.
Or, if you want to be cynical, call it a “makeup call.” Recall, if you will, that Rahal got perhaps unfairly hosed way back at St. Petersburg when he contacted Charlie Kimball and got an avoidable contact penalty assessed, when other contact incidents there or elsewhere this year may have not. I don’t think that thought process entered Race Control’s minds on Saturday, but still, it’s something that came to my mind today.
Finally, there was relief. We did have the two bad accidents after all, but fortunately with happy endings. The contact that took Takuma Sato and Will Power out of the race saw Power’s quotes get a lot of play. What should be getting more play? How about the fact these two hit the concrete wall on the front straight, sans SAFER barrier. I don’t know how many more of these type accidents need to happen before SAFER barriers are erected all the way around the perimeter on ovals.
And then there was the “Ryan and Ryan aerial show,” as I can call it now knowing that both drivers are safe, sound, and in Ryan Briscoe’s case, already joking after a horrific looking accident on the second-to-last lap. Briscoe went airborne after contact with Ryan Hunter-Reay, with the pair both in the wrong spot at the wrong time after contact when they were both near eventual fourth and fifth-place finishers Juan Pablo Montoya and Sage Karam.
So therein lies the perfect storm, the perfect dilemma, the double-edged sword for IndyCar after today’s thriller.
Fontana’s Auto Club Speedway produced arguably one of the best all-time races in the series’ history.
Yet so few people watched live in the grandstands.
Debate and drama has arisen about whether this was a return to the dreaded “pack racing.”
A driver finally won after being so close all year, yet avoided an in-race penalty.
And to cap it all off, the end of the race, ending under yellow after two severe crashes has again raised the specter of danger to the point where danger and drama – rather than dynamic racing – emerges as the dominant storyline from the race.
Saturday may have been one of IndyCar’s best days on track in its recent past.
Yet taken on the whole, it may open up a potential Pandora’s box of potential concern for its foreseeable future.