IndyCar – Three Up, Three Down: Fontana

Carlos Munoz leads the field to the green flag for a restart of the MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway -- Photo by: Chris Jones

There were way too many stories in the Verizon IndyCar Series race at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, CA this past Saturday to wrap up in three simple positives and negatives. Some of the honorable mention topics that I’d be very happy to discuss in the comments section are Carpenter-Fisher-Hartman Racing’s extreme inconsistency, the abnormally long 15-lap caution for the Castroneves incident, and Mr. Steve Matchett’s infectious enthusiasm as a commentator. Unfortunately, in this format, I had to narrow the comments to six total topic, and I chose those that, in my opinion, fundamentally defined the event.

Three Up

Great oval racing action
While some wailed an gnashed their teeth about the return of pack racing, the on-track action at Fontana was by far the most entertaining oval action outside of the Indianapolis 500. I definitely understand the concern. Everyone involved in the sport, be they a driver, crew, official, media (even photogs), and die-hard fans remember the horror of the 2011 season finale at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. I’m no exception. I have a photo of Dan Wheldon that I took at Mid-Ohio hanging in my office, and that following Monday morning when I sat down at my desk and looked up, it was Niagara Falls. The racing action we saw this past weekend, albeit closer than we’re accustom since the introduction of the DW12, wasn’t the type of tight pack racing we saw in the IRL days. Groups of three and four cars were capable of racing close, making passes on each other, defending positions, and running on up to four different lines around the 2-mile oval. The individual groups, though, were separated enough that when there was an incident, it remained a two-car affair rather than a chain reaction disaster that we used to see in the IRL and that we see in other oval-based racing series. Outside of a few of the more seasoned drivers, the remainder of the grid seemed to have a great time, and the fans were shown a great race.

Honda finds parity with Chevrolet
It was a first this year that a Honda-powered machine was on the top-step of the podium for a race which did not involve weather-related craziness. It was also the first time in 19 years than both a Rahal and an Andretti stood on the podium. While the rivalry between the sons has not been as vigorous or contentious as for their fathers, their podium finishes are a story because of their mutual manufacturer, Honda. James Hinchcliffe won the swamp-buggy race at NOLA in his #5 Honda-powered Dallara for Schmidt Peterson Motorsport, and Carlos Muñoz took his #26 Honda to victory lane at the end of Race #1 in Detroit after utilizing a brilliant tire and fuel strategy on a drying circuit. Although both victories are certainly well deserved, afterall, racing isn’t solely about raw speed, but also racecraft and strategy, neither car was genuinely the fastest or best machine on the circuit. Rahal’s victory at Fontana along with Andretti’s third place finish demonstrated that the Honda package, in the right type of race, could be competitive and challenge Chevrolet. They’re still behind the 8-ball on the road courses, and it’s their philosophy of trying to achieve greater downforce through more aerodynamic elements that has lead to an increase in drag relative to the Chevrolets. It will be interesting to see how Honda’s fare at the Milwaukee Mile and the Iowa Speedway where higher-downforce wing packages will be mandated as opposed to the low-downforce super-speedway packages the teams ran at Fontana.

Sage Karam finally has a decent race
Those who have followed my writing over the years know that I’ve been very keen on Sage Karam’s talent. Throughout his Mazda Road to Indy career, he’s shown great pace and patience on track, attacking with full vengeance at the right times. In his first Indianapolis 500 Mile race, he did remarkably well working his way from the back to finish P9. Since then, his efforts in IndyCar have been limited and without success. This year has been one of complete frustration filled with on-track incidents, mechanical problems, and a Lap 1 Turn 1 DNF at Indianapolis. Prior to this weekend, his best finish was at Detroit and Texas where he finished P12 in both races. That changed on the 2-mile oval of Auto Club Speedway as Sage not only found enough pace to be competitive, but lead his first laps as an IndyCar driver. He would finish in fifth, by far his best result of the year, and the finish provided a much needed confidence boost for the young racer from Nazareth, PA.

“It was fun because you’re on your toes the whole race and you can’t make one mistake. But at the same time it’s very chaotic out there and very scary. There’s a lot of guys that are (mad) at each other, for sure, and I don’t blame them. There are a couple guys that blocked me hard and I’m sure I made a few drivers mad as well. But when you’ve got pack racing like that, that’s the nature of it and that’s how it’s going to work out. I think everyone in the field thought they could win at some point today. It was fun running up front. The Comfort Rev/Big Machine car was fast all day and I led my first laps today in the Verizon IndyCar Series, got my first top five. After a rough season, that’s what I needed right there and that’s some confidence for me that I’m going to put in my bag and take forward.” — Sage Karam, #8 Chip Ganassi Racing

Three Down

Where are all the fans?
Although the TV ratings for this year’s 500-miler were double that of last year, not that that’s saying a whole lot, the attendance at the track was abysmal. The Saturday afternoon race drew a 0.37 rating, up over last year’s 0.18, but with a mere 5,000-ish fans in attendance, the track and promoter took a huge beating. The disgruntlement was such that the track president, Dave Allen, announced that he would not entertain a 2016 date that wasn’t in September or October and the season finale. I don’t blame him. Walking around a sea of tarmac in the middle of a late-June afternoon in the California desert is not my idea of a grand time. The race needed to be a night race like we see at the Texas Motor Speedway, or preferably, as Mr. Allen desires, a date in the fall.

The other issue that likely affected the attendance numbers was the lack of date equity and promotional efforts. Since returning to the schedule, the race has not had the luxury of having a repeat date yet. That’s no way to build a core group of local fans to support your event. There’s also been discussion as to whether IndyCar needs to reconsider its sanctioning fee structure and taking a larger, more hands-on role in promoting its races in coordination with the venues and event promoters. IndyCar does not have the type of clout and following to simply demand a large sanctioning fee and sit back while the track and promoters do all the heavy lifting. I think it is time for INDYCAR to become more involved in self-promotion both for the series and for individual events. Significantly reducing the sanctioning fee and arranging instead a share of the gate would also be a great way to both attract more venues and provide motivation for the powers that be at 16th and Georgetown to invest in their own success.

The Coyne crew takes another car to the knee
We’ve always known that the entrance Dale Coyne Racing shop is equipped with a revolving door. (Insert sponsor check for entry.) Perhaps as a result of that turnover in the cockpit of the team’s cars, they had their third incident of the year in which a crew member was struck by one of their cars during a pit stop. There has also been car-on-car violence between teammates in the pits this year at Indianapolis. Tristan Vautier wasn’t completely under control of his racing machine as he came into his pit box, overshot his mark and collected the left-front tire changer, Oren Trower. As a precaution, Oren was taken from the scene on a back board and transported to a nearby hospital. Fortunately, he was cleared after examination and released. Regardless, the Dale Coyne Racing team needs to think very carefully about their procedures and the training and instruction of their drivers.

Graham Rahal leaves his pitbox with the fuel hose while his crew looks on in anguish. -- Photo by Scott James
Graham Rahal leaves his pitbox with the fuel hose while his crew looks on in anguish. — Photo by Scott James

The most blatant non-call of the season
On Lap 188, Graham Rahal came into the pits for fuel and tires. The stop appeared to go smoothly until the gas man re-engaged the fuel rig right after removing it and the right-front tire changer had given the signal for Graham to head out. As Rahal accelerated out of his pit stall, he pulled the fuel rig and hose with him, severing the hose and spilling fuel over the rear of his car and on the tarmac. The nozzle remained partially engaged to the car until flying off on the backstretch. Anyone who follows racing knows that this is an immediate penalty. It is the definition of creating an unsafe condition. The INDYCAR rulebook itself is addresses this topic.

7.10.1 Any of the following matters and any others which may be determined by INDYCAR may be cause for a Car to be penalized:

7.10.1.5 Car that makes contact with its own pit equipment while entering or exiting its pit stall causing a safety issue and/or causing the pit equipment to leave its assigned pit and/or impeding the progress of any other Car;

7.10.1.10 Unsafe release of a Car from its pit box;

The problem with how the above regulation is crafted is the word “may” in Section 7.10.1. Causing a safety issue such as an unsafe release or causing equipment to leave the pit box, you know, like rolling off with the fuel rig and spilling denatured ethanol all over the place, is not something that “MAY be cause for a Car to be penalized,” [emphasis is mine] it is something that SHALL be cause for a Car to be penalized. I don’t understand how this isn’t the absolute standing operating procedure when it comes to pit equipment and safety violations. There will be a penalty announced sometime this week and the team may be assessed a points penalty and fined, but it’s a meaningless penalty. It sends the message, “Sure, don’t worry about running over your air hose, bowling over a crew member, or flinging fuel all over pit lane. It won’t affect your race results.” In Saturday’s case, it sure didn’t. Graham Rahal drove a great race, and excluding the pit boondoggle which was not in any way shape or form his fault he earned his victory. The truth of the matter, though, is that there WAS a rules violation that went without reprimand or consequence that, if enforce, may have affected the race outcome. Would they have waited to examine this incident post-race if the fuel had actually caught fire? In this type of incident, you can’t simply claim “No harm, no foul.” Next time there might be. There simply must be immediate consequences for unsafe behaviour delivered by the Race Officials.

UPDATE:
INDYCAR announced the penalties for the MAVTV 500 at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, CA.

  • Will Power receives a $25k fine and probation for the remainder of the season for his shoving a medial responder following his late-race incident with Takuma Sato.
  • Tristan Vautier receives a $10k fine and probation for the remainder of the season for his incident in pit lane resulting in his left-front tire changer, Oren Trower, being transported to the hospital with suspected lower extremities injuries.
  • Graham Rahal receives a $10k fine, $5k of which was suspended, for leaving the pit box while the fuel probe was still attached to his car. His refueler, Phil Davis, was placed on probation for three races.
  • Juan Pablo Montoya receives a $1500 fine for running over an air hose during a pit stop. …again
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, Andretti Autosport, and CFH Racing received $500 fines for leaving wheel nuts unattended following a pit stop.
  • CFH Racing received an additional $500 fine for leaving a wheel unattended following a pit stop.

So let’s make sure we have this right and unpack these penalties a bit. Being irritated after being taken out of a race that you had a good chance of winning and giving an official a bit of a shove: $25,000 and a scarlet letter for the rest of the season. Actually striking someone with your out-of-control race car and send them to the hospital: meh, that’s only $10,000. Throw race fuel around pit lane and drag the fuel probe with out out onto the racing surface where it can fall out and go flying at high-speeds in unpredictable directions: $10,000, and well, you know what, since you’re such a nice guy, let’s make that $5,000.

If you ask me, the punishments do not seem to be matching the crimes.


So those are my thoughts on the greatest IndyCar race that no one saw. What say you? Let’s continue the discussion in the comments section below.

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Gilbert Arnold

Doug: Graham didn’t create that incident. If you look at the replay, The fuel man, pulled the nozzle from the car Graham was given the signal to go. And then for some inexplicable reason the fuel man put the hose back in. Graham was already moving by that time. The incident was caused by the fuel man’s actions. If he hadn’t put the hose back in there wouldn’t have been any incident at all. NBCSN showed that replay at least 3 times.

xorpheous

Please note that I didn’t say he was at fault. In fact, I explicitly mention that he was NOT at fault. Steve Jarzombek made me aware of a curious fact, however. In order for Rahal to have left the pit with the fuel probe even partially engaged, he would had to have engaged the emergency shift switch therefore bypassing the safety feature designed to prevent this exact type of incident.

Gilbert Arnold

Hey Xorpheous: I wasn’t particularly blaming you, but I see a lot of people claiming that Rahal caused the incident and thus should have been penalized. I seem to remember a comment during the race that race control told the guys in the booth that they weren’t going to assess penalty at that time since they considered it to be the result of human error.

xorpheous

Avoidable contact is human error as well, but Briscoe received a drive-through for it in pretty short order.

oregonwings

It was not Graham’s fault, but it was the fault of his team. We’ve seen drive through penalties in the past because of things like misplaced air hoses that get run over (also not driver error if told to pull out and hose is lying there), yet they didn’t call a drive-through for the potential seriousness of this act. The driver may not be at fault, but the point of a penalty, especially those that are in regards to safety like the fuel hose, is to be sufficiently strong enough to prevent someone from ever doing it again. I recall… Read more »

jcn115

they win as a team, they lose as a team. Many times in the past we have seen penalties handed almost instantly by fueling mishaps or running over equipment.

PizzaForPluto

They haven’t had problems calling penalties before. It was clear they didn’t want to hurt Honda’s chances of winning. And this coming from a guy who wanted to see Honda do well. It even caused a caution. And, yet. Nuttin’.

partofthepuzzle

I watched this race and like many fans found it absolutely thrilling. But I’m also haunted by Dan Wheldon’s death (and of course many others) and I can’t ignore the comments from drivers and owners about the inherent dangers of this type of racing. Several of them said that they were caught out by it: they thought that there was general agreement in the IndyCar community that they would do what it took to prevent a return to pack racing. As entertaining as it was to watch the race, I don’t want to watch any racing that’s going backwards in… Read more »