Fontana Preview

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This weekend, more precisely tomorrow afternoon, the Verizon IndyCar Series resumes its quickening run to the end of the season. Counting tomorrow’s race at Auto Club Speedway at Fontana, California – there are only six races left in the season. That seems odd to say (and type), since it is still June. In past seasons, we would only be approaching the halfway point about now.

It also seems odd that the series is headed to Fontana right now. Lately, this has been the site of the IndyCar season finale where they crown the champion. In other years, Fontana has been very late in the season even if it was not the finale. The lone exception was in 2002, when the IRL staged a 400-mile race at Fontana in late March. That race appeared to be attended by no more than a few dozen spectators that watched Sam Hornish win over Jacques Lazier and Laurent Rédon.

Tomorrow’s attendance may be no different. With temperatures in the Los Angeles area approaching triple digits all week, that won’t entice casual fans to venture fifty miles to the east to sit on aluminum seats with no shade to watch a race starting at 1:15 local time. Two years ago, this race was run in mid-to-late October. Last year it was moved to late August. Now, it’s in June. Unless you are a hard-core fan of the series, it’s a tall order to expect the casual fan in southern California to keep up with the revolving dates.

It’s not like southern California is a bad market for auto racing. It may even rival central Indiana as the hotbed for the origins of open-wheel racing. Although they weren’t all born there, the area produced such legends as Rex Mays, Troy Ruttman, Sam Hanks, Jim Rathmann, Rodger Ward, Parnelli Jones and Dan Gurney to name just a few. Not too far to the north came Bill Vukovich from Fresno and Rick Mears from Bakersfield. The area is also famous for legendary racing venues such as Ascot Park, Riverside International Raceway, Ontario Motor Speedway and of course – the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

But lately, Fontana has been a tough sell. Roger Penske built what was then known as California Speedway as a clone of Michigan International Speedway with shallow banking. The first CART race was a 500-mile race held at the end of the 1997 season and won by Mark Blundell, driving for PacWest Racing. Unfortunately, my most vivid memory of those first CART races is the fatality involving Greg Moore on October, 31 1999.

2002 saw both CART and the IRL stage races at Fontana. As mentioned earlier, Hornish won the IRL race held in March, while Jimmy Vasser won the CART race that November. Curiously enough, Vasser also finished ninth in the March IRL race at Fontana.

So suffice it to say that Auto Club Speedway, the southern California area and American open-wheel racing have deep roots. But every year, there is the continuing nagging feeling that the next IndyCar race at Fontana may be the last one.

If that were to ever happen, it would be unfortunate. This is a great track that offers great racing. It is wide with multiple grooves and the low banking is especially conducive to the low-slung Indy-type cars. My only complaint about the facility concerns the seams that run parallel to the track, making it tough to “change lanes”. They have contributed to more than one crash and were partly to blame for Mikhail Aleshin’s frightening practice crash there last year.

Susan and I were fortunate enough to attend the 2013 IndyCar race at Fontana. So far, that has been my only visit to Auto Club Speedway. It’s very easy to fall in love with the place. First of all, everything feels new, even though it is now almost twenty years old. Roger Penske doesn’t do anything on the cheap. There is plenty of on-site parking. While it is nearly fifty miles from downtown Los Angeles, there are still plenty of nearby hotels, shopping areas and restaurants – unlike many tracks, including the one here in Nashville. With the majestic snow covered mountain range as a backdrop, it is also very scenic.

As far as tomorrow’s race goes, I expect it to be a good one. We will see roughly the same aero kits we saw at Indianapolis, which means Honda should be more competitive than they’ve shown on the road courses this season.

Even if someone has a bad qualifying run, on such a wide-open track they can quickly work their way to the front. I don’t wish any crashes on anyone, but a few well-spaced caution periods will help bunch up the field and create some interesting re-starts. A few yellows can also help keep pit strategies interesting, as well.

Juan Montoya is leading the championship with teammate Will Power only twenty-seven points behind. Any significant problem for Montoya could lead to Power leading the points by tomorrow night. Conversely, if Power has an issue then Montoya could strengthen his case for his first IndyCar championship since 1999. Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves are only eighteen and twenty-five points behind Power, respectively. At ninety-one points behind Montoya in fifth sits Graham Rahal. Although he is mathematically alive, I now consider this a four-driver race for the championship, between three Penske drivers and one Ganassi driver. Simon Pagenaud in tenth place, is the only Penske driver that can be ruled out of the championship picture.

Who will win tomorrow? That’s anyone’s guess, and it is just that – a guess. The Ganassi cars have performed well on the two ovals run so far. Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon both had their fair share of time up front at Indianapolis and Scott Dixon won relatively easily at Texas. Many are expecting a Ganassi win at Fontana. Many are hoping that Ed Carpenter can get his oval-only season on track and erase the dismal performance at Texas. Maybe his teammate, Josef Newgarden, can show that his talents aren’t limited to road and street courses.

Some think Graham Rahal or Ryan Briscoe may have an outside shot at pulling off a victory for Honda. A race that isn’t won in rainy conditions could do wonders for Honda. Maybe Ryan Hunter-Reay can turn around his nightmare season on the giant two-mile oval. Perhaps Tristan Vautier or Pippa Mann can deliver an upset win for Dale Coyne and his revolving door of drivers.

Those would all be good stories, but I don’t think any of them will happen – not this week. To the chagrin of some, this race will be won by Team Penske. By winning last year at Pocono and this year at Indianapolis, Juan Montoya has won the last two 500-milers. He has become a very wise driver in his later years and I think he will play it safe and race for points this weekend. This race will go for who is the hungriest.

Helio Castroneves had a relatively quiet and disappointing month of May. Will he want to show that he’s still got it? Of course he will, but that may not be enough. Scott Dixon will be up there throughout the race, but I see Ganassi struggling a little bit at this track for some reason. That leaves Will Power. He probably wants to show that his 2014 title was a sign of things to come and not a one-year fluke. I would think that he’s eager to prove that his oval skills are up to the same level as his road & street course skills.

Will Power won this race two years ago, when Susan and I were there to watch. He drove about as hard of a race as I have seen. Tomorrow afternoon, I’ll be on my couch watching Will Power drive to his second victory in his last three trips to Fontana. He may not overtake Montoya in the championship standings, but he’ll sure make things a lot tighter.

George Phillips

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16 Responses to “Fontana Preview”

  1. Changing the dates every year on Oval races is the ploy Indy car uses to kill the venue. It was classic how they handled Kentucky Speedway, at one point putting it directly against Riverfest in Cincinnati which attracts hundreds of thousands. I think the last four years had different dates and killed off what used to be a very good crowd for a very good race. More evidence from Fontana that this was intentional, and not just incompetence.

    • Yannick Says:

      Well, the IRL put up the NOLA race this year on the same date as the popular French Quarter Festival, and it was the inaugural race at that track even. Killing the venue on purpose doesn’t make any sense when it’s the first outing.

      So why are the IRL scheduling their races so weirdly? Hubris? No, if that was the case, they wouldn’t budge from the NFL like they do with the premature end to this and next season on Labor Day.

      But this weird scheduling has been going on even before the reunification. They’d better not put it into the contract of Boston that the race there would be the season finale every year or they would be stuck with the season ending on Labor Day for a further number of years. But looking at how the IRL got rid of Surfers Paradise because Chicagoland had it in their contract to be the season finale, this might still happen. Sorry for having been so negative.

      And with ISC’s venture into Laguna Seca, it’s not unlikely that a spring race there will not be possible because they don’t want another race so close to the sportscar date which they surely are going to move to a time slot that is best suitable to block IndyCar from staging a race at their desired date.

  2. SOCSeven Says:

    Calgary, Alberta wants to hold a race but can’t get a race date in the summer because the schedule is packed. Calgary has a warm climate so this weekend (86 deg) would be perfect. Instead, the FBCG (Boston Consulting Group with an “F”) have left no openings for new tracks…….and Fontana fans will broil when, in another world, they could have a September or October race.

    You couldn’t destroy a racing series any better if you tried to plan it.

  3. Chris Lukens Says:

    Way OT –
    George, I’ve been meaning to post this for a couple of weeks now. I just want you to know how much I appreciate your blog. I know this place is a labor of love, but still, it’s a labor, clearly a LOT of labor. It shows. You have a real love of Indy Cars and a obvious commitment to quality work. Any time you want to take a day off is perfectly OK by me. Thank you.

    On Topic –
    I made my prediction about the long term viability of Fontana in the June 24th blog. As far as who wins tomorrow, wow, who knows. I think it is a foregone conclusion that it will not be a Honda, so that eliminates Graham Rayhal, which is too bad. If it is any one of the Chevy group of Carpenter, Kanaan, Dixon or Helio I will be happy.

  4. Ron Ford Says:

    IndyCar to track promoter: “We are going to stick you with a race in the middle of the day during the hottest time of your year and dare you to make money. That Boston thingy said we can’t afford to compete with those exciting Oakland Raiders during October. Besides, our TV ratings are spiking so we no longer need actual fans at the actual race. We are also looking into ways to screw up the Milwaukee race”.

    • Yannick Says:

      And of course, Fontana plays along with this date shifting because as an ISC track, they have an interest in making business difficult for Milwaukee because ISC also own Milwaukee’s local competitor, Michigan International Speedway.

      Here’s hoping Milwaukee is going to be back next year regardless.

  5. All series are suffering from lagging attendance right now. I don’t think it’s just an Indycar phenomena. In today’s entertainment marketplace a day at the track has fallen several rungs in the eyes of John Q. Public.

    Yes the change in dates and the weather play a factor but it’s not like those season finale races at Fontana were breaking attendance records either. We’ve poured out lots of electronic ink over the years here and at dear departed Pressdog debating ways to increase attendance at ovals. I don’t think our brilliant internet minds have figured it out either, but to suggest that the series is intentionally trying to reduce attendance and lose money is ridiculous.

    • Ron Ford Says:

      Doing something “intentionally” would involve studied, willful thought. I am not seeing that. What I do see is indifference to the needs of promoters and fans who actually attend races, and general incompetence. Increasing attendence at races is complicated and difficult, but IndyCar continues to do things that decrease attendence. Granted that the recent season finale races at Fontana did not break attendence records. That could be considered the new normal, today’s baseline and you try to build on that. My granddaughter’s marketing class could quickly come to the conclusion that moving the race date to the middle of the summer is not how to begin building on that attendence baseline. And they are not even from Boston.

  6. If I recall properly, didn’t the series run at Kansas City on the July 4th weekend and weren’t those races in the afternoon. And weren’t those miserably hot? I think so.

    I am looking forward to watching CFHR this weekend. I’d like to see Ed put it together and for Newgarden to have a great race on an oval.

  7. I’ll admit straight out I am trepidatious about those first t.v. shots of the grandstands on Saturday. Like many, I have a pretty good idea of what I am going to see. I am still shocked at how empty it looked at last years finale. Considering how tight it was and what was at stake, as was the 2013 finale. It seemed unfathomable that there were not more people in the stands. Following the trends lately at Fontana, tomorrows numbers could be frightening.

    I’m thinking of Milwaukee also this week, and how we could be witnessing its final year. That would leave Iowa, Texas left? IndyCar could find itself in a interesting position with its calendar as a shoe- in for F1 if it implodes the next couple years as some experts predict. These are frightening times if you are a fan of open wheel racing.

  8. jhall14 Says:

    Hey George that 1997 race, just watched it on YouTube, stands were packed and 100 degree heat. How far has OWR fallen? Mark Blundell was the winner as you mentioned.

  9. billytheskink Says:

    I can’t bring myself to sweat too much over Fontana attendance at this point. Indycar’s management has proven to be quite promoter-unfriendly in regards to schedule dates for all types of tracks, not just ovals. That is unfortunate, but it appears that Fontana is making a good faith effort to sell tickets despite the challenges it faces, and that is all we can ask of them. I do not expect an especially large crowd but I do expect the race to return if title sponsorship does, and it has been reported that MAV TV/Lucas Oil is under contract to sponsor the race in 2016.

    I am greatly looking forward to the race itself, as Fontana has proven since its return to be perhaps the only race of “survival” on the schedule. It may be the most demanding race the series holds, considering the strain it puts on drivers, teams, and equipment. More so than Indy and Pocono, Fontana seems to be reminiscent of the 500 milers of the 70s and 80s. That’s cool.

  10. As much as they try to act like Fontana is Los Angeles, it’s not. It’s a crossroads in the desert on a freeway. And it’s hot in the desert. And there’s traffic on the freeway. There are too many entertainment options in the area. Open-wheel oval fans seem to be nearing retirement. And anyway it’s not Nascar. So I don’t see much chance of good attendance now or in the future.

    I’d like to see Ed get back his oval mojo, but that seems unlikely. A Newgarten follow-up would be great but I think you’re right about the Penskes, I’ll take Juan Pablo also with Will Power second.

  11. Reading george’s post and the comments make me seriously fear that we are 2 to 3 years away from Indy being the only oval on the schedule. Rather than view this as a monumental problem, I fear even more that the arrogance of indycar’s brass will pretend all is well, the series is in great shape, and please enjoy the 15 sreet and road courses on our awesome 4 and a half month schedule!

  12. Ron Ford Says:

    Re: Pikes Peak. If Justin Wilson did not have bad luck he would have no luck at all.

  13. Dixon to win. He would make it 3 for 3 on ovals if it weren’t for debris in his radiator at the end of Indy.

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