The Frontstretch: Open-Wheel Wednesday: A Fontana Experience, Part I by Huston Ladner -- Wednesday November 6, 2013

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Open-Wheel Wednesday: A Fontana Experience, Part I

Huston Ladner · Wednesday November 6, 2013

 

The sun looked brilliant but the heat elicited a groan as sweat soaked my shirt while I finished packing. After petting the dogs goodbye and one of those airport departure scenes with LP, it was time to hop over the Pacific Ocean and make my way to the IndyCar championship race.

What lay in store? What might a high-speed oval promise? Would the race be memorable? Could an event like this one help to shake off some of the malaise surrounding the television ratings? How would I entertain myself on the plane? Where’s the closest Chick-Fil-A?

These questions buzzed about my soft mind as I sat in seat 15G on the tarmac. Sure, every traveling journalist goes through these same routines of checking in, hopping a plane, heading out to the arena, but this one felt a little different. Maybe it was the excitement of the culmination of the season. Or maybe it was seeing the open-wheel cars fly around the two-mile D-shaped oval. I’d been to the Auto Club Speedway a number of times but had never seen an IndyCar race there.

In addition, no one from our site had ever taken upon the challenge of reporting from the actual IndyCar championship race. It was all different, new, and in flux. The editors and I had exchanged emails, phone messages, and calls, and they too had no real idea of what to expect.

Spare parts and tires…all a part of the IndyCar experience. Photo courtesy Huston Ladner.

There’s an added aspect to going to Fontana for the race. Since Dan Wheldon’s death from going airborne and catching the fence, a spectre has hovered over the series whenever it visits a track where speeds top 200 mph.

The race at Texas this year exemplified that as the cars were dialed back in a way that hardly seemed like racing, but rather just a line of cars turning laps at a speedy rate. Entertaining, it was not. But those adjustments were made in the name of safety – and let’s face it, no one ended up dead. And no one wants to see anyone die playing a sport.

It’s been two years since Wheldon died at Las Vegas and the sport continues to make amends, hoping to create a product that is fast, competitive, safe, and engaging all at the same time. Whether or not it has done so was one of the reasons to be there at the race. What is the state of IndyCar as things move forward? (And, egad, will it move forward?)

The hype machine for the championship was in full effect as those in charge of PR took the Astor Cup trophy on a tour of SoCal, sending pictures through Twitter along the way. See, there the Cup is at the beach. Now it’s at the Staples Center. And now…well, it made me wonder if we’re supposed to cheer on the Astor Cup as if it has a personality of its own. Maybe it does. Maybe it’s got a Twitter account like The Orange Cone and the two swap stories.

The two drivers with a chance at hoisting the cup after the race were made available to the press and fans. Qualifying was still two days away.

By the time I landed, I thought, there’ll be one day left before the focus turns to the on-track product. IndyCar is working hard to get people interested and projected ticket sales are up over last year’s race. Maybe the sport is turning a corner, though slowly, and with the blinker on, but still a good move.

A screw-up with my own reading comprehension meant that I missed qualifying. It’s quite possible that I failed to account for time zone differences and just blew that one. But really, qualifying didn’t matter all that much anyway. Blasphemy you say? Nah.

The truth is that qualifying for most motorsports doesn’t quite have the significance it once did. At least IndyCar gives a point for taking P1. But the reason it meant nothing here was that ostensibly half the field had switched engines meaning they’d take a 10-spot grid penalty. The pole-sitter, Will Power, was not one of those drivers.

But how could he take away a point from his teammate Helio Castroneves – who would have been able to close the gap to 29 points? Yeah, you read that right, that was one of the major storylines after qualifying. That should pretty much say it all.

The thermometer in the car read 91 as I approached Auto Club Speedway. There’d be no fall weather accompanying the race unless the weather mellowed considerably in the evening – which can happen in the desert-like Fontana region.

The area, often referred to by the NASCAR faithful as Fontucky, is a weird mix of things, of creeping residentialism and commercialism, and yet still barren lands and dust. The track itself sits next to an abandoned steel complex, one that would surely be gentrified for apartments or a mall if there were a need or desire. Currently, that doesn’t seem to be part of the plan.

While driving around the outside of the track, I was surprised by the number of people there so early. The race would start in six-plus hours, but a number of people had already filed in and happily drank, wandered, cavorted, and did whatnot.

In addition, there was an interesting show of car culture. Muscle cars, tricked-out imports, and expensive European supercars dotted the landscape. It seems that auto racing hasn’t left behind all of the car people – or maybe this track is an anomaly. Hard to know.

I got my credentials but then drove around lost, as no one had really told me where to go or if I needed to get in touch with anyone. Into the fray…

I parked in the infield and made my way into the world of IndyCar. The first thing I passed were the hospitality tents, filled with the big money schmoozers and the sponsorship people. The tents, though not really tents – more like collapsible restaurants – varied in tone, from staid and corporate to laidback and grab yourself a plastic chair.

With no real interest or purpose to being there, I began walking to the – hey, there goes Tony Kanaan buzzing by my shoulder on a scooter – to the garage. The garages were abuzz. Teams were passing their cars through technical inspection, while others had their cars in so many pieces that one would think that the race was the next day.

Away on the track the sounds of Indy Lighs cars echoed from the mostly empty grandstands.

One of the many things that doesn’t translate well from the track through television is the look of the Indy cars. They often come across like glorified go-karts, the pieces plastic, and the overall sense that they’re not that special. Standing there looking at one of them, however, it looks quite different. The shiny aluminum and steel, the polished carbon fiber pieces, and the sleek bodies seem more technical, more aggressive, and faster.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, the Indy Lights race felt very much like a junior series. The low car count, the lack of passing, the sense of the thrill, it felt like a race trying too hard. Would having another ten cars on the track make it seem like more of an event? It’s quite possible, because from looking on, it seemed almost like a test session or practice.

Once the track was cleared, preparations began for the main event. The energy in the garage area began to grow, as did the crowd. Engines were lit up, testing them for the race. The cars were back together in one piece. The television crews began wandering, looking for their next subject.

Inside the media center, Michael Andretti was giving his press conference to let everyone know that his team would be using Honda engines next year (a surprise to no one), and that James Hinchcliffe would have a sponsor and remain with the team. Well, that all seems to work.

Things were starting to happen on the track as a makeshift stage rolled onto the frontstetch. People began filling the limited seats that were offered – see, the track had cordoned off about two-thirds of the seats, those on the ends of the grandstands, keeping the crowd centered.

In the pits, silent, driverless cars were towed down the lane. From an overall standpoint, it seemed like there was a feeling that something interesting or special was about to happen. Of course, matching expectations and results is a difficult thing and you couldn’t be sure that something interesting would actually take place.

Before getting to that stage, however, the drivers had to walk a rope-lined gauntlet, climb aboard the makeshift stage, say hello to the crowd, and then be whisked away to their cars. The race was finally about to be one.

But still, things like this lingered in the background:

Will Power ‏@12WillPower 16 Oct
Meant to tweet this earlier…been traveling…remembering Dan Wheldon today and thinking of his family #LionheartForever…

Want to read the rest of Huston’s Fontana adventures? Tune in next week for Part II!

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Michael in SoCal
11/06/2013 11:12 AM
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Cool piece so far. You’ve done a good job of describing Fontana and the area around the track.

It definitely is a different perspective to be down in the pits, on the inside, checking out the teams scurrying around the cars. Seeing all the pre-race activity is fun.

And people arrive early for races in Fontana. At the last Labor Day Race we attended, the wife & I arrived around 9:00 am and the race didn’t start until 5:00 pm. And it was blazing hot out there, over 100 degrees for most of the day.

Mac
11/08/2013 10:13 AM
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Wow, no one from the site has been to an IndyCar race in person? That seems amazing and strange. I’m glad you finally made it. Along with hockey, racing is the sport that has to be seen live to be fully appreciated. I’m interested in reading your next part once you see the cars on track. There is nothing else like it.