DiZinno: IndyCar’s Double-Edged Sword in Fontana

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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.

WATCH: Full replay of Saturday’s race

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.

AMAZEMENT

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.

ANXIOUSNESS

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.

ANGER

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.

STUPEFIED

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.

RELIEF

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.

IN CONCLUSION…

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.

Behind the scenes of how the biggest story in racing was kept a secret

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In a world where nobody is able to keep a secret, especially in auto racing, legendary business leader and race team owner Roger Penske and INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles were able to keep the biggest story of the year a secret.

That was Monday morning’s stunning announcement that after 74 years of leadership and ownership of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Hulman George Family was selling the track, the Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR to Penske.

In an exclusive interview with NBC Sports.com on Thursday, Miles revealed the extreme lengths both sides went to so that nobody found out about this deal ahead of time. That included meeting with Penske at his Detroit offices early on Saturday mornings and late on Sunday nights.

The most important way of keeping it confidential was containing the number of people who were involved.

“We thought it was important to keep it quiet until we were ready to announce it,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “The reason for that is No. 1, we wanted employees and other stakeholders to hear it from us and not through the distorting rumor mill.

“That was the motivation.

“We just didn’t involve many people. For most of the time, there were four people from Roger’s group in Michigan and four people from here (IMS/INDYCAR) involved and nobody else. There were just four of us. We all knew that none of the eight were going to talk to anybody about it until very late.”

Even key members of both staffs were kept out of the loop, notably Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles, who admitted earlier this week he was not told of the impending sale until Saturday when he was at Texas Motor Speedway for the NASCAR race.

Both Penske and Miles realize the way a deal or a secret slips out is often from people far outside of the discussions who have to get called in to work to help set up an announcement.

Miles had a plan for that scenario, too.

“On Saturday, we had to set up a stream for Monday’s announcement,” Miles said. “We came up with an internal cover story so if anybody saw what was going on, there was a cover story for what that was, and it wasn’t that announcement.

“The key thing was we kept it at only those that needed to know.”

It wasn’t until very late Sunday night and very early Monday morning that key stakeholders in INDYCAR were informed. Team owner Bobby Rahal got a call at 7:30 a.m. on Monday. Racing legend Mario Andretti was also informed very early on Monday.

At 8 a.m. that day came the official word from Hulman & Company, which owns the Indianapolis 500, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR as well as a few other businesses, that Penske was buying the racing properties of the company. It was an advisory that a media conference was scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It was a masterful move by both Penske and Miles.

Penske is already famous for keeping one of greatest secrets in racing history in 1993 and 1994. That is when his famed racing team along with Ilmor Engineering created “The Beast” – a 209 cubic-inch, pushrod engine that was designed, developed and tested in total secrecy. A small, select group of Team Penske mechanics were involved in the top-secret project and were told by Penske that if word of the engine leaked out, “it would be like cutting your paycheck.”

Nobody talked.

History repeated itself with the biggest racing story of the 21st Century, the sale of the world’s most famous race course that hosts the largest single-day sporting event in the world – the annual Indianapolis 500.

When INDYCAR held its “Victory Lap” award ceremony on Sept. 26 in Indianapolis, Miles told the crowd of an impending announcement that would be big news for the sport.

Was he coming close to giving away Monday’s announcement?

“No, that was about a sponsor announcement that will be coming along later,” Miles said on Thursday night.

Penske is one of America’s greatest and most successful business leaders. He is also the most successful team owner in auto racing history with 545 wins in all forms of racing including a record 18 Indianapolis 500 wins, a record 16 NTT IndyCar Series championships as well as two Daytona 500 wins and two NASCAR Monster Energy Cup championships just to name a few.

Penske was not the only bidder, but he was the one who made the most sense to the Hulman George Family, because it was important to find an owner who believed in “stewardship” of the greatest racing tradition on Earth more so than “ownership” of an auto racing facility and series.

“There were a number of parties that were engaged in thinking about this with us,” Miles revealed to NBC Sports.com. “There were a couple that got as far as what I call the ‘Red Zone.’

“Then, Tony George reached out to Roger Penske on Sept. 22.

“Price and value were always important, but the thing that nobody could match was the attributes that Roger could bring to the table, in terms of his history of the sport, his knowledge of the sport, combined with his business sense.

“He was viewed as the leader from a legacy or stewardship perspective, which was a very important factor.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

McLaren IndyCar boss breaks down team’s first test since missing Indy 500

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McLaren Sporting Director Gil De Ferran left Sebring International Raceway last Tuesday with a much happier outlook than when he left the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 19.

That was when McLaren and famed two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ill-prepared. They failed to make the 33-car starting lineup for the 103rd Indianapolis 500.

That day in May, De Ferran vowed that McLaren would return.

Last Tuesday, what is now known as Arrow McLaren Racing SP after purchasing into Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, De Ferran was back to evaluate the team’s NTT IndyCar Series effort.

Instead of Alonso in the cockpit, it was the team’s recently named full-time drivers for 2020 at the test. That included 20-year-old Pato O’Ward of Monterrey, Mexico, the 2018 Indy Lights champion and 22-year-old Oliver Askew of Jupiter, Florida, the 2019 Indy Lights champion.

O’Ward was in the car for the test with Askew watching from the pit area.

“Pato did a great job, did not put a foot wrong, got on to it straight away and it was all good,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “It was a positive day on all fronts. To work together, to build the team together and embark on this team together was very positive.”

De Ferran is a two-time CART champion with titles in 2000 and 2001 when he was with Team Penske. He also won the 2003 Indianapolis 500 for Team Penske before retiring as a driver at the end of that season.

Since then, he has been involved in numerous Formula One, IndyCar and Sports Car efforts. As McLaren’s Sporting Director, De Ferran is involved in both Formula One and IndyCar.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP also includes partners Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson. Arrow also has a financial stake in the team in addition to serving as sponsor.

The chance to work with two young drivers is something that has De Ferran excited.

“They are both very young, but they have been around for a while,” De Ferran said. “It’s not like these guys are completely clueless about racing. They have been racing ever since they were kids. Generally speaking, as a trend in motorsports, they start much younger than I did. They move to cars at a younger age and tend to reach this level of the sport at a younger age then when I was coming up.

“Although they don’t have a lot of experience in IndyCar, several members of the team can help in their development. These guys are very accomplished and top-level guys. They have won a lot of races and championships before getting the nod from our team.”

Last week’s test was part of INDYCAR’s evaluation of the new aeroscreen that will be on all cars beginning in 2020. Arrow McLaren Racing SP is a Chevrolet team. Honda team Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan also participated in the test with four-time Champ Car Series champion Sebastien Bourdais as the driver.

This was the only test that Arrow McLaren Racing SP will conduct in 2019. Testing time is severely limited De Ferran said it won’t be back on track until the 2020 regulations take effect.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP has already experienced some controversy after the team said several weeks ago that popular driver James Hinchcliffe would not be driving for the team. He remains on the payroll and is expected to be at the track in a public relations capacity.

That has angered many IndyCar fans who are huge fans of the popular Canadian driver.

“I have nothing more to add to this than what was said at the time,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s head-down. We have to go racing. We are on a journey here together with this partnership and two young drivers that are very accomplished and have a lot of talent. Our job is to deliver the results on the track.

“That is where my focus is. I’m completely focused on improving every aspect of everything that we do trackside.

“One thing I guarantee you, whatever we start, to have that focus to improve everything that we do we will continue to move forward. It was like that when I was driving, and it was like that throughout my professional career away from the cockpit. We will keep looking for opportunities to improve.

“Eventually, good things will happen.”

It was just Day One on the track, but after seeing this team struggle at last year’s Indianapolis 500, McLaren took its first step in returning as a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team.

“This is the beginning of a journey that we embarked on several months ago now and you do a lot in the background,” De Ferran said. “The guys from SPM and us have put a lot into this partnership. Behind the scenes, we have been working hard together.

“We’re all racers, man. We want to see cars on track. This has been like a little check off the box and it feels good that we were on track.

“We have a long journey ahead, but it’s good to be working together, at the race track, how the car is handling, the engine is working and how the drivers do.

“First day on the track for Arrow McLaren Racing SP. It’s a good day.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500