A scorcher of a day has wrapped up at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, and if yesterday’s action is any indication, tonight’s 500-mile race should be truly fantastic.
On what turned out to be a day even hotter than predicted, the stars of the IZOD IndyCar Series showed once again that the new 2012 INDYCAR race machine is well-adapted for producing thrilling action of the high-banked ovals without the hair-raising, wheel-to-wheel pack racing that had previously been a hallmark of the Series.
With more than half of the field choosing to accept 10-spot grid penalties to obtain a fresh engine for the race, qualifying was considered to be of little significance, especially given the length of the race and the apparent ease with which good cars should be able to move through the field. Even so, few people expected to find Marco Andretti atop the pylon at the conclusion of qualifications, Andretti being one of the 12 drivers who will not be receiving a fresh engine before tomorrow night. For Marco, that was a nice way to put a period on what has been an exceedingly disappointing year. As he said in his post-qualifying comments, he has been on the wrong side of the 0.01-second differential. He was due to be on the right side for once.
One of the big stories of the day was the follow-up of Mike Conway’s decision to not run this weekend because he didn’t feel comfortable on the high-speed oval. Every driver questioned has supported Conway’s decision and proclaimed him both wise and respectful of his fellow competitors. Adding fuel to the flames yesterday afternoon was EJ Viso, who claimed on Twitter that he would not participate in the race unless INDYCAR adds more downforce to the cars. He was the last car on the track for the final practice and only turned eight laps in the session, good for 24th position ahead of Wade Cunningham (who made light contact with the turn 2 wall) and Simona de Silvestro, whose best lap was 3.7 seconds off the fastest set by Ed Carpenter.
From a spectator’s standpoint, the in-car cameras were showing the cars bouncing around quite a bit, especially as they move across the paving seams that have opened up in recent years. Crossing one of these seams is apparently what caught out Justin Wilson in the first practice session and led to his contact with the turn 2 wall. It is understandable for the drivers to be unsettled with the cars bouncing around as much as they appear to be at these incredible speeds. However, for Viso to take his complaint public via Twitter reeked of childish publicity stunt and showed a great deal of immaturity on his part when he easily could have handled the matter internally as Conway did yesterday. Where Conway has been almost universally praised for his actions, it’s unlikely that Viso’s comrades will offer him such high marks.
In last night’s final practice, drivers showed off racing lines that I have never seen used in an Indy car. Drivers were using all 70 feet of pavement throughout Auto Club Speedway’s high-banked turns. After JR Hildebrand started running the high line early in the session — the very high line — many other drivers followed suit, including Franchitti, Rahal, Wilson, Power, Carpenter, and many more. If that line actually opens up during the race, differing lines could look very similar to NASCAR races on this track where drivers can choose any of four or five lanes to get their cars to work at their best. Where many of the previous 1.5- and 2.0-mile oval track races have been about getting the car to stick along the white line, the current aerodynamic package makes that seem unlikely for this event, so drivers will really be forced to maneuver their cars throughout each run.
Drivers won’t just have to deal with a single track condition, either. One of the biggest unknowns in tonight’s race will be the changing track conditions as the sun descends and the track cools off significantly. It’s very likely that what works well for a car early in the race will not work at all near the end. Communication and teamwork will be critical in being fast all night long. It was a shame that INDYCAR didn’t allow more practice under the lights last night instead of concluding practice at 6:30. Drivers and teams were afforded an opportunity to test on Wednesday night under the lights, but with a full day of rubber being laid down, the track looks to be quite different tonight than it was on Wednesday.
One of the fun parts of every race weekend is the Randy Bernard media scrum, and yesterday was no different. In his remarks, Randy address a wide range of issues and concerns on everything from the 2013 schedule to his reflection on the past three years as CEO and how INDYCAR compares to his former role as the head of the PBR. (For a blow-by-blow account of Bernard’s comments, be sure to check out More Front Wing’s Twitter feed from yesterday afternoon.) One of his interesting comments regarding this weekend was that Auto Club Speedway is indeed on a one-year contract but he has been extremely impressed and pleased with the promotional efforts of Gillian Zucker and her staff here. Paired with his comments earlier in the session regarding the possible/likely return of Pocono Raceway to the schedule next season and a possible return of the Triple Crown, it seems likely that INDYCAR may see a trio of 500-mile races on tap for next year. That should add some intrigue and the possibility of a big payday for one driver.
Speaking of the promotional efforts being done around the Speedway, I can’t say that I have seen a single thing about the event outside of the track. While most of my time has been limited to the Ontario International Airport terminal, a couple of hotels, and the interstate to the track, I’ve yet to see a single promotion for the event. I realize the area around Auto Club Speedway isn’t a massively residential area and greater efforts may have been focused elsewhere, but with my hotel right next to the Ontario Mills Mall, I would have expected some sort of indication that the INDYCAR season finale was taking place just four miles down the road. Obviously, the folks here know the marketing environment better than me, but I always get an uneasy feeling when so little fuss is made about the event this close to the track. Most people don’t expect much of a crowd, and with the massive grandstands at this track (capacity 91,200), it is likely that attendance will look downright dismal tonight. Let’s hope Bernard and Zucker are able to meet whatever goals they set for this event because it really appears this is going to be a sensational race.
With that, I’ll call it quits for now and be back later today for full coverage of the MAVTV American Real 500 as INDYCAR crowns its 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series champion. I’ll be at the track starting at noon Pacific [3 PM ET] with the Firestone Indy Lights Auto Club Speedway Foundation 100 set to go green at 3:00 PM [6:00 PM ET] followed by the MAVTV American Real 500 at 5:50 PM [8:50 PM ET]. Please be sure to follow us all day long on Twitter for news throughout the day.