Fontana: Paul’s Saturday thoughts

IndyCar, IndyCar commentary — By on September 17, 2012 8:24 pm

Saturday night’s MAVTV American Real 500 turned out to be a fitting finale for a season that has truly been one of the best in Indy car racing history.

After 500 grueling miles that seemed to leave the final results constantly in doubt, a pair of Americans finished the night as the big winners with owner/driver Ed Carpenter winning the battle and Ryan Hunter-Reay winning the war.

The race was full of twists and turns from the very beginning.  Early on, it looked like JR Hildebrand had the car to beat, but slight contact with the wall put an end to any hopes he had of bringing home victory.  A similar fate befell several other drivers, including Ryan Briscoe who was running strong early in the race and looked to be a serious contender.

The turning point of the race, and the event that people will likely talk about for quite some time, was Will Power’s crash on lap 56.  After running the first quarter of the race in Ryan Hunter-Reay’s wheel tracks — exactly what he needed to do to secure his first championship — Power dove low to pass Hunter-Reay, lost control of his Verizon-sponsored car over one of the paving seams, and crashed hard into the turn 2 wall.  For the third time in the last three years, Power’s hopes of an IZOD IndyCar Series championship were dashed by contact on an oval and his inability to ultimately go the final distance.

Debate has raged and will continue to boil about Will Power’s talent on ovals.  It’s hard to say that a driver of Power’s caliber can’t get the job done on the ovals, but that has certainly been the case more times than not over the years.  When the chips are all on the table, Power has simply failed to get it done, time and time again.  This year, as in 2010, this departure from the season finale was of his own doing.  After three failed attempts, it’s difficult to imagine that the pressure will be any less on the Australian when he likely returns to this position in the coming years.

The greatest thing about the IZOD IndyCar Series Championship is the diversity required to earn the title.  This year, Ryan Hunter-Reay, like Dario Franchitti before him, showed himself to be the most versatile and well-rounded driver over the span of the entire season, and that versatility ultimately paid off in the series title.  It’s exactly the kind of season and driver that INDYCAR wants to crown as its champion as it shows that excelling on just one type of track doesn’t make you good enough to be called an INDYCAR champion.

Stepping away from the championship and focusing on the race itself, this one exemplified exactly why INDYCAR needs to end its season at a 500-mile oval race.  For too many years, the season has ended with a 300-mile oval race.  Such races are certainly interesting and dramatic, but a 500-mile event showcases the very best of INDYCAR and forces drivers to really earn their last points of the season.  By extending the race, many more variables come into play, not the least of which include changing track conditions, driver stamina, and mechanical reliability.

As we saw Saturday night, the extended race distance allowed ample time — which would not have existed in a 300- or 400-mile race — for a driver to make adjustments to his car and move toward the front.  Conversely, it required drivers who were strong early in the race to adapt to the track and maintain their razor-sharp focus for the entire 500 miles.  Several drivers made their way to the front but couldn’t stay there.  Drivers such JR Hildebrand, Marco Andretti, Ryan Briscoe, Katherine Legge, Rubens Barrichello, and Alex Tagliani had strong top-five runs going at one point or another in the race but weren’t able to sustain their positions over the final 200 miles.  Even eventual winner Ed Carpenter, who ran strong early in the going, fell back during the middle portion of the race but was able to make necessary adjustments and run strong at the end when it counted the most.  Not only does running 500 miles at the end of the season constantly keep the teams and drivers on their toes, it adds a great sense of excitement and drama for the fans to embrace.

So, the question of where to put a 500-mile season finale is the next logical one.  I personally really enjoyed my time at Auto Club Speedway and thought it was a great venue for an INDYCAR race.  I’m just not quite sure it’s ready for a season finale just yet.  From my perch during the event I had a great view of the crowd at the track, and based on the grandstand capacity being just over 91,000, I would estimate there were a solid 15,000-20,000 fans in attendance in the stands.  The infield had a nice RV crowd, so maybe add another 2,000 or 3,000.  Those certainly aren’t numbers that are going to blow anyone away, but for an event returning after a seven-year absence, it was a good starting point and a lot better than when INDYCAR last raced there in 2005, especially considering the blistering heat that befell the Inland Empire over the weekend.  INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard said he was extremely pleased with the marketing efforts of Auto Club Speedway, and although they were on a one-year contract, I got the sense he felt they would be back next year.

My biggest problem with using Auto Club Speedway for the season finale is that I just don’t think it draws enough from the hardcore, largely midwestern fan base to make it a must-attend event in person.  The LA market is a tough nut to crack, and INDYCAR racing isn’t what it once was in California.  More importantly, running on Saturday night works well to avoid Sunday NFL games, but starting the race in twilight hours on the west coast means a very late finish for fans in the east.  Are fans going to devote 3.5 hours starting at 8:30 on a fall Saturday to enjoy the season finale?  I guess we’ll know in a few days when the TV ratings come out.

What ACS does have going for it is that there is no NFL team currently in the LA market, so INDYCAR isn’t going directly against that in the fall.  (There is still USC football and the Dodgers, which could go directly against INDYCAR, but not every conceivable conflict can be avoided.)  With 10+ million people within a couple hours of the track, a solid marketing effort should be able to garner a solid 50,000-60,000 in that market if the track and INDYCAR can work to make a long-term go of it.  That still wouldn’t be a sell-out and it’s always better to have more in attendance, but I can’t imagine anyone at INDYCAR would sneeze at 60,000 paid fans at their finale, even if it the stands are only 60% filled.

Unfortunately, if INDYCAR does want to host a 500-mile race for its finale, the options are fairly limited.  I have never gotten the sense that INDYCAR is excited about greatly extending the length of races on 1.5-mile ovals such as Texas, Chicago, or Kentucky.  To date, the longest race run on such a track is the Firestone 550k at Texas Motor Speedway (342 miles).  Using a larger track really reduces the options as there are only seven ovals of 2 miles or greater in the US (with one of those being the nearly defunct Texas World Speedway — and no, that’s not going to happen for any one of a dozen reasons!).  Toss out Daytona and Talladega and you’re left with four: Indianapolis, Michigan, Fontana, and Pocono.  INDYCAR would run 500 miles at Bristol before they run a second 500-mile event at Indianapolis, and Michigan’s weather could be a huge concern in October (Bernard has already said ending in September is not an option). That essentially leaves Pocono and Fontana.  I am excited about the rumored return of INDYCAR to Pocono, but I can’t see any situation in which it becomes the season finale.  That leaves just one option: Fontana.  If Fontana becomes a somewhat standard season finale, INDYCAR and Auto Club Speedway must truly work as partners to make it not simply a race but an event.  Anything less will lead to the same demise this race suffered seven years ago.

By the time the MAVTV American Real 500 reached its halfway point on Saturday night, I was convinced that the DW12 was the best machine to grace Indy car racing in the last 20+ years.  It might not be the prettiest one we’ve ever seen, but it’s hard to argue with the product on the track.  This car has produced phenomenal racing on long ovals, short ovals, street courses, and natural terrain road courses.  The racing on Saturday night showed that this car challenges the drivers but still doesn’t allow one guy to run away from the field.  Fans want close racing, and racers want a car they can really drive.  This car delivers both.  No longer are the 1.5- and 2-mile ovals a festival of white-line fever.  I have never seen an Indy car race with so many lines being used by different drivers, and watching how different drivers could use different tactics to better their cars was really a spectacle to enjoy.

Having now witnessed an entire season with this car, I am less adamant and concerned about the introduction of aero kits in the coming years.  Realistically, the aero kits will provide little visual differentiation and will unduly risk abandoning the great racing we witnessed this year.  I know a lot of fans want to see that variety, but even more want to enjoy the type of racing we’ve seen this season.  I say let the engine manufacturers battle it out, but I am in the camp of those who don’t care one way or the other about aero kits.  I’ll take this type of racing any day over a couple different side pods or wing configurations.

Perhaps the most controversial issue coming out of the race at Fontana, and thankfully one of the few times all season we’ve had to discuss Race Control, was regarding the red flag that was flown with eight laps remaining in the race to give the race a chance to end under green flag conditions.  Quite honestly, I’m very torn about this whole situation.  I consider myself to be a purist when it come to racing integrity.  I don’t care for gimmicks, and I abhor the thought of a green-white-checkered finish that changes the length of race.  Playing with red flags is a very dangerous precedent that can quickly go awry and lead to all sorts of accusations about impartiality within Race Control.  The list of requirements that some people would need to ensure it is employed fairly would make the unabridged version of Les Miserables looks like a children’s book.

That being said, I don’t have a problem with the practice so long as a) it isn’t abused and b) competitors have a clear understanding that such usage is ultimately at the discretion of Race Control.  I have no problem with Beaux Barfield calling for the red flag if it was known to the teams beforehand that it was a possibility.  My problem with the situation as it played out Saturday night is that I don’t think it was really necessary.  Kanaan’s incident occurred on lap 241, and the field was pacing at about 60 mph under the yellow flag (roughly two minutes per lap).  The accident was very minor, and clean up could have easily been done in under 10 minutes.  A good effort by the Holmatro Safety Team could have taken about 4-5 laps, leaving a two- to three-lap shootout at the end to decide the championship.  Maybe that is a lot on the line for such a short run, but it would have avoided this controversy.  Unfortunately, at the time, Barfield didn’t have the benefit of hindsight and had to made a decision in the moment.  He has made enough good calls this season for me to support and trust him, so I won’t criticize him in this moment.  I just hope going forward that scenarios such as this are better laid out and that all participants are aware of the plans.

Congratulations certainly go out to Ed Carpenter on his fantastic and thrilling victory, as well as Ryan Hunter-Reay and the entire Andretti Autosport organization for their remarkable efforts all year long.  Both of these men are class acts and exemplify all that is good about INDYCAR racing.

With that, we’ll conclude our coverage of the MAVTV American Real 500 and settle in for the long off season.  2012 has certainly been a great year for the IZOD IndyCar Series and one that will provide a wonderful foundation from which to grow in future years.  There are still a massive number of questions to be answered before the 2013 season kicks off, not the least of which is where the season will actually begin.  Keep an eye on More Front Wing this winter as we keep you up-to-date with all the latest news and happenings.  We thank you for your great support again this year and look forward to being back with you again next season!

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