AutoMatters+: MAVTV 500 – One of the Best IndyCar Races Ever

Auto Club Speedway in Fontana is two miles long and very wide, which usually gives the drivers plenty of racing room. The last race that the IndyCars ran here was at night, whereas this time they raced in the heat of the day. Before the race Takuma Sato explained that “you lose tons of downforce with the high ambient temperature, and you lose significant mechanical grip due to the high track temperature.”

In IndyCar’s ongoing efforts to make the racing competitive and exciting for the fans to watch, the rules encouraged Honda and Chevy to develop their own unique aero kits. Each took a different approach, and achieved different results.

The competition was unbelievably close for the entire 500-mile race. Spectators thrilled to breathtaking, three-wide and four-wide racing, lap after lap, at lap speeds as high as 218.164 miles per hour, set on lap 229 by Takuma Sato (#14 ABC Supply, AJ Foyt Racing Honda). At one point I even observed — and photographed — five-wide racing in a turn. There were 80 lead changes — an all-time IndyCar record!

On lap 241 of the scheduled 250, Sato and Will Power (#1) — each of whom had led many laps — collided with each other and the wall on the start/finish straight. Both drivers walked away unharmed. IndyCar wanted to give the fans a green flag racing finish, so the race was red-flagged on lap 245 while the cars were hauled away and the track cleaned up.

The race resumed with four laps to go, with the field bunched up. On lap 249, with Graham Rahal (#15) leading Tony Kanaan (#10) by only .0365 of a second, Ryan Briscoe (#5) was sent totally airborne in a terrifying collision with Ryan Hunter-Reay (#28). Briscoe’s car flipped upside down and then speared the infield grass with its nose. That catapulted the car into a wild flip before it finally came to rest. Anxious moments later, Ryan emerged from his car unhurt, as did Hunter-Reay.

In the days following that accident, there have been calls to pave the infield — the thought being that if the car’s nose had hit pavement, it would have eventually skidded to a stop, instead of digging in and launching.

Graham Rahal (#15 Mi-Jack Honda) won the race. It was only the second win of his long career as an IndyCar driver — the first coming back in 2008.

In the post-race press conference, Graham expressed relief to finally have the monkey off of his back. He went on to say “that was nuts, but it was fun. The downforce versus tire life combination was just right to produce four different lanes of racing, and that’s what made it so entertaining. Those that came, I think they got quite a show. I haven’t done this in years and years and years.”

During one of Graham’s pit stops, a crewmember unexpectedly reinserted the fuel nozzle to make sure the car was fully fueled. Unaware of the miscue, Rahal drove away with the nozzle still in his car. However, it came out when Rahal moved the car back and forth. Fortunately for him, instead of calling him back into the pits to serve a penalty, IndyCar imposed a financial penalty several days after the race. “We were definitely lucky with that one.”

“It was very hard to figure out where to go. The wake of a Honda is different than the wake of a Chevy, so you always had to be thinking who you’re behind, what lane you’re in, how can I find the grip, do I need to straddle the seam, and everything. The Chevy puts off a bigger wake, so it’s harder to follow a Chevy, particularly if you get two or three of them in a line. The Honda guys try to stick together a little bit more. The one car team aspect of this is that yesterday we couldn’t go try different aero configurations or downforce levels.

“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.”

Drivers and commentators are still talking about this race. No one can deny that it was incredibly exciting, but for the drivers it was also dangerous and nerve-racking. Will we ever see this kind of racing again?

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Copyright © 2015 by Jan Wagner – AutoMatters+ #393

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