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IndyCar: Questions and controversy swirl following Fontana thriller

Fans certainly got their money's worth from this year's IndyCar event at Auto Club Speedway. But was it all too much and too dangerous?
There's no question that Saturday's MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California had been utterly spectacular and totally thrilling, containing more on-track incident in one three-hour race than many championships seem to be able to manage in an entire season.

However even as the dust was still settling following an exhilarating race, there was also controversy hanging over what we had just seen. Debate was raging over everything from how race winner Graham Rahal escaped a penalty for a disastrous pit stop, to the reasons behind Ryan Briscoe being given a drive-thru for what many saw as a racing incident, and also the question of why fan attendance at Auto Club Speedway was so painfully poor.

But most of all, the biggest question on everyone's lips after the chequered flag seemed to be: had the race simply been too much? Had all the close-quarters pack racing at speeds in excess of 200mph been too dangerous?

"What are we doing?" fumed an agitated Will Power, after being wiped out late in the race following contact with Takuma Sato. "It's insane, because you cannot get away and you have to take massive risks to gain track position."

For him it brought back bad memories of the 2011 Verizon IndyCar Series season finale in which a huge multi-car accident at Las Vegas Motor Speedway resulted in the death of Indy 500 champion Dan Wheldon, and also left Power himself with serious back injuries over the off-season.

"It was pack racing. It was Las Vegas again. I'm just glad no one's hurt. Exciting as it is, it's insane," he said. "We don't need another Vegas incident. It's just a matter of time."

"It was a crazy race and I'm just glad I'm okay," concurred veteran racer Tony Kanaan after finishing second. "People who criticise [the racing in IndyCar] should try this: pack racing at 215mph. There definitely is a fine line between pack racing and close racing. People have to understand how stressful it is for us.

"I lost my best friend in exactly this way in 2011," he added, referring to the fatal crash that claimed Wheldon's life. "If there were 100,000 fans we might want to race that way. To do this in front of 5,000 people is stupid. At Texas, there were no problems, but it was criticised for being a boring race. How can we make everyone happy?

"Did I like it a lot? No. But it was a heck of a race for the fans.

"Maybe we can find a compromise over the course of this year the fans and the drivers," he suggested. "I have an opinion and I hope you respect that. It was a nerve-racking race, but I guess it was fun."

“It was extremely dangerous," was the opinion of Marco Andretti, who finished the race on the podium in third place. "But that's what we signed up for. I think the fans got a good race. I mean, it's fun. It's definitely crashy, but it's risk and reward.

"In my opinion, I think a good car should win the race, not one that's just taking the biggest chance," he added. "And I'm not taking anything away from Graham, he drove a heck of a race But I'm sort of in the middle on it, maybe because I'm in the middle on age."

On the other end of that age spectrum, team owner and racing icon AJ Foyt simply shrugged when asked what he felt about all the side-by-side, three-, four- and five-wide, inches-apart racing that dominated almost every single minute of green flag running at Fontana this weekend.

“I loved racing like that when I did it," said the 80-year-old Texan, whose lead driver Takuma Sato also ended up sidelined after the incident with Power ten laps from the finish. "It just wasn't our day."

Balanced against those concerns was the fact that the drivers ran 135 laps without a single full course caution, despite all the thrills and spills on display. There were only six cautions in the entire race, and two of those were for debris rather than for on-track incidents. While the racing had looked spectacular on screen, perhaps it hadn't been as dangerous as it appeared?

Race winner Graham Rahal - who claimed his second IndyCar win this weekend after a seven-year, 125-race winless streak since his maiden victory at St Petersburg in 2008 - was certainly quick to speak up in defence of Saturday's spectacle.

"I think it's racing," the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver insisted. "We have taken ourselves to a place over the last few years to where we've reduced the downforce so far that we couldn't even race.

"It was the closest racing we've seen in a long, long time, but it was very different than the old pack racing style where it was just flat and you place it where you want. You still had to pick the best spot." However he also admitted: "I don't think it needed to be as close as it was today."

Rahal himself received a warning for blocking during the race but escaped any sanction over it. Nor was he penalised for an incident on lap 190 during a round of pit stops when he was ushered away from his pit box only to find that the refueller had reinserted the fuel hose back into the car in the meantime. The hose was ripped off the fuel rig, but debris from the hose triggered a full course caution which meant that he avoided going a lap down.. Nor was Rahal handed a penalty for the pit stop debacle that could have cost him a chance to still be in with a shot of victory at the finish.

"Obviously, a penalty would have killed us," Rahal admitted. "You know, Phil - my fueler - he's being pretty hard on himself right now. I think he was concerned that we didn't get in all the fuel that we needed to, which we did, and unfortunately he tried to kind of jam it back in there.

"But yeah, we were definitely lucky with that one," he added. "Unlucky but lucky because I went out of pit lane, and I was like, the frigging thing won't shift. I mean, I couldn't figure out what it was. And then I looked in the mirror, and I was, like, you've got to be kidding me, not again. And then luckily it wasn't in all the way, so when I kind of moved the car back and forth, it finally popped out."

Race control would only comment that it viewed the incident as having been a "Human error mistake, no one on team assessing blame on that one." That opinion raised a lot of eyebrows among spectators and media pundits alike. IndyCar's president of competition and operations Derrick Walker did subsequently add that RLL would in all likelihood receive a post-race fine for the incident, but that won't affect Rahal's victory.

Some were left wondering why not. The handling of the Rahal pit incident was in marked contrast to the drive-thru penalty handed out to Ryan Briscoe for what was deemed avoidable contact but which others saw as a racing incident with Helio Castroneves on lap 136 which sent the Penske driver into the inside wall on the backstraight, triggering the first of the day's six cautions.

The simplest answer to the apparent discrepancy is that this year race control appears to be trying out a policy of not penalising a driver for a mistake made by other members of team personnel, so long as the driver himself doesn't gain an unfair advantage from the infraction or that a rival competitor doesn't have his race adversely compromised. In Rahal's case the error in question was that of the refueller and the only person to suffer from the incident was Rahal himself who lost track position as a result. That meant an in-race penalty was unnecessary and the team and responsible personnel can be better penalised directly through the imposition of a heavy post-race fine, whereas in Briscoe's case the fault lay with the driver and it ended up writing off Castroneves' day into the bargain.

In any case, the controversy over Rahal's penalty or lack thereof and whether Rahal would have won otherwise is likely moot. After all, Briscoe recovered from his own drive-thru penalty and was still firmly in the mix with five laps to go - right up to the moment that Ryan Hunter-Reay went into a spin after contact with Juan Pablo Montoya. The #28 Andretti Autosport made contact with Briscoe's #5 and the back of the Schmidt Peterson Motorsport car ended up flipping into the air before the nose then dug in to the grass to give the incident an aggressive final kick. Briscoe was fortunate to come out of the accident with nothing more than a dizzy spell.

"Coming through the field a couple of times, it was awesome," he recalled after the race. "I was really enjoying myself and I was able to be aggressive. With a lap to go, in our position, I had some momentum coming down the frontstretch. I was going to take that low line into 1 and 2, and felt like we were going to come home with a top three, for sure. Unfortunately, Hunter-Reay got turned around, I had nowhere to go and she went flying.

"Thankfully, I'm all right and no big deal," he said, in a massive piece of understatement. "First I had to call my wife and tell her I'm okay. I'm glad everyone is okay. The racing has been close all day. I wish it didn't happen. Not the way I wanted to go out."

It had certainly been a heart-stopping incident to watch, and it was the moment that had brought home to everyone just how on-the-edge and dangerous the racing had truly been all day. At times it seemed like the entire race had been teetering on the edge of just such a potentially disastrous outcome. But in the end it hadn't happened, and Briscoe and all the other drivers involved in the various crashes during the race had been able to walk away from their wrecked cars completely uninjured. Could that be put down to good planning and strong safety features in the Dallara DW-12 and at the track - or had it been worryingly more to do with pure good luck that nothing worse had happened?

Briscoe knows all too well about the dangers of the sport. He was sitting in the car that under normal circumstances would have been in the hands of James Hinchcliffe, but the popular Canadian is currently sidelined after suffering leg and pelvic injuries during practice for the Indy 500 last month. It had later been revealed that the injuries had been potentially life-threatening and only decisive, rapid action from the Holmatro safety team at Indianapolis Motor Speedway had averted tragedy.

Among the speculation for the causes behind Hinchcliffe's accident were that the new superspeedway aerodynamic bodywork components introduced into the series this year had generated so much extra downforce that it exceeded the tolerance of an insignificant but nonetheless crucial piece of the Dallara's original suspension. When that failed, Hinchcliffe's steering had gone with it and he ended up going straight into the wall at high speed.

The aero kits had already been under the spotlight at IMS even before Hinchcliffe's accident, following a number of high profile incidents in which cars that had spun around then got flipped up into the air in a highly dangerous fashion. Since then, IndyCar has been working hard to introduce refinements to the aero kits to reduce any tendency for the car to get launched skywards, but worryingly that's exactly what happened to Briscoe in the final accident on Saturday. Not long before, Takuma Sato's car also came close to flipping after his accident with Will Power. Both incidents will be reviewed by IndyCar as part of their normal post-race review and analysis to see what can be learned and what if any further revisions need to be made to the regulations.

However perhaps the biggest concern for IndyCar coming out of this weekend's race is the question of attendance. The initial crowd figures for the first Fontana race in 2012 had been 30,000, but last year the MAVTV 500 pulled in only 20,000 to the track - and that had been for the 2014 season finale. A scheduling change in 2015 means that this year's race came two months earlier in the season and has lost the extra allure of being the title decider, so it's perhaps not surprising that the grandstands looked painfully sparse on Saturday. The question has to be whether the event remains economically viable to run in the future or whether this will be just the latest in a long line of oval IndyCar races to be consigned to the history books, as the series becomes increasingly reliant on street and road course events.

That's causing a big problem for IndyCar CEO Mark Miles who is trying to grow the championship and add events, not lose them. This season has already been compressed to just 16 races after the late cancellation of a planned new event in Brazil, and the strategy of packing the events tightly together over consecutive weekends so that the championship is concluded before the ratings-grabbing NFL season gets underway in September means that IndyCar is now inactive and essentially out of mind for a full seven months of the year. Small wonder then that the series struggles to attract a sizeable audience outside the still hugely successful Indianapolis 500.

When even a stone-cold white-knuckle thriller like the race we saw on Saturday can't bring out the fans to the track, then for how much longer will the street and road course events also continue to be able to hold the line?

Additional trackside reporting by Lynne Huntting of

Related Pictures

Click on relevant pic to enlarge
Helio Castroneves leads the field down the frontstretch during the MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway (Photo by: Chris Jones for IndyCar Media)
Ryan Briscoe wrecks after contact with Ryan Hunter-Reay in the closing laps of the MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway (Photo by: Chris Jones for IndyCar Media)
Ryan Briscoe wrecks after contact with Ryan Hunter-Reay in the closing laps of the MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway (Photo by: Chris Jones for IndyCar Media)
Ryan Briscoe wrecks after contact with Ryan Hunter-Reay in the closing laps of the MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway (Photo by: Chris Jones for IndyCar Media)
Ryan Briscoe wrecks after contact with Ryan Hunter-Reay in the closing laps of the MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway (Photo by: Chris Jones for IndyCar Media)
Ryan Briscoe wrecks after contact with Ryan Hunter-Reay in the closing laps of the MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway (Photo by: Chris Jones for IndyCar Media)
Alexander Rossi - Andretti Autosport   [pic credit: Indycar Media/Joe Skibinski]
Will Power - Team Penske
Graham Rahal celebrates victory in the Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway   (image credit: IndyCar Media/Chris Owens)
Will Power - Team Penske   [pic credit: Indycar media/Chris Jones]
Will Power - Team Penske   [pic credit: Indycar media/Chris Jones]
Will Power - Team Penske   [pic credit: Indycar media/Chris Owens]
Ed Jones - Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing
Will Power - Penske  [pic credit: IndyCar Media/Chris Jones]
Will Power - Penske   [pic credit: IndyCar Media/Chris Jones]
Carlos Munoz celebrates his first IndyCar pole at Texas Motor Speedway
Alexander Rossi - Andretti Autosport
Alexander Rossi - Andretti Autosport [credit: Walter Kuhn]

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June 28, 2015 12:36 PM

Mark Miles insane idea of ending the season before labor day may well be the final nail in a once great series coffin. How can you claim to be a professional racing series when you don't race for half the year. Once upon a time the defending F1 champion chose Indycar over F1. That now seems so absurd someone young enough not to remember wouldn't even beleive it.


June 28, 2015 1:38 PM

There have been some exciting races on the road courses but the risks remain high on these speedways. Indy was a little better after they altered the aero in qualifying, likely because it is a completely flat track and takes away pack racing opportunities. Ever since they covered the rear wheels in the interest of safety I think Indy has hurt themselves. The aero packages allow the cars to run everywhere and it is now like partially closed wheel Nascar. I wish they would consider the aero package again, open the wheels for open wheel racing, and remove the downforce to levels that prevent the pack racing. The keep talking about adding more horsepower but really they have plenty if they ran less aero.

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