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.