The Frontstretch: Open Wheel Wednesday: A Fontana Experience, Part II by Huston Ladner -- Wednesday November 13, 2013

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Open Wheel Wednesday: A Fontana Experience, Part II

Huston Ladner · Wednesday November 13, 2013


Editor’s Note: Did you miss part one of Huston Ladner’s Fontana Experience? No worries! We’ve got you covered!

Open Wheel Wednesday: A Fontana Experience Part I

Will Power’s message about Dan Wheldon was a sign that he still travels with the series. Each time they get into one of their cars, the drivers face this reminder, as Wheldon was the one who tested and shook it down before it made its appearance—the DW12 chassis is named in Wheldon’s honor. I was surprised, however, to see a number of fans with Lionheart garb as they wandered about.

It’s one thing that the drivers are acutely aware of their situation, as one might expect, but now, two years later, the fans also still carry his name with them. In an age of Now, and trending, and what’s next, seeing the Wheldon t-shirts and gear felt comforting in a way, as though fans made sure that he would be remembered.

But enough of that sobering somber stuff, there’s still a race to run!

From the drop of the green flag to this moment, Huston Ladner says the IndyCar season finale was quite the spectacle.

Walking down pit road as the cars sit there quiet, there was a weird combination of elements. People milled about as though they were in a mall, shopping for a new shirt or purse, while crew members went through last minute checklists and got focused on actually doing their job. Most teams got together for a last-minute huddle and then break, poised, almost spring loaded to take care of something.

As the crowd dispersed and the drivers got ready to climb in, the cars looked as best as they would: gleaming, clean, straight, polished, and poised. Roger Penske ambled to Helio Castroneves’ pit box with a look of consternation on his face. Had a sense of resignation set in over Castroneves finishing second? Had Penske realized that they had blown the championship two weeks before in Houston? Or was he doing his best to figure out how to play some sort of strategy that might change the expected outcome?

Chip Ganassi passed by with an affable grin and a self-assuredness that seemed to say, “all good.” Scott Dixon, the antithesis of the energetic Castroneves, seemed calm and at-ease. Had he already envisioned holding up the Astor Cup? Did he know something everyone else didn’t? Heck, would the button-down Dixon get worked up if he lost?

One of the more intriguing drivers to watch was Ed Carpenter. Giving off a look of focus and determination, Carpenter had excelled on the fast ovals during the 2013 season and was seeking to end the year in a similar fashion.

The man with money on his mind kept a jovial sense about him. He had nothing to lose and a big bag of cash to win, and with his impending move to Ganassi, this race was his proverbial swansong.

With the convocation finished and the National Anthem sung, there was just that little thing left to make happen.

Here’s a question: Who is it that really benefits from the guest stars who show up to get the engines fired? Usually it’s one of two people that get to do the honors: someone high up the corporate structure for a major sponsor, or an actor with a new movie to promote. It feels like the fans are getting cheated here.

Sure enough, no difference here as someone from Dish Network gave the command for drivers to start their engines.

Here’s the frustrating part. Both Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt were at the track. That’s two of the most memorable drivers in the world. Might they have been a good duo to handle the task? Yes, Foyt had done the honors at Houston, but it’s doubtful that anyone other than the Dish guy’s family would have minded changing things up. But that’s the corporate world and shows how much the relationship between sponsors, tracks, and teams matters.

And, I suppose, what’s the big deal anyway – no one rushes home after the race and talks about the command to start the engines.

There was an eerie calmness that accompanied the idling cars on pit road with the drivers all staring ahead, perhaps even serene.

The start time for the race had been pushed back in an effort to mitigate the setting sun as drivers headed into turn three. No wonder, it freakin’ blinded me. Forget driving a race car at 200+mph, driving on the freeway headed west would probably be a problem.

By the time the pace laps were complete, the sun wasn’t as much of an issue, and the feeling of night started to descend on the area. The temperature still hung in the upper 80s, but there was an inkling of the creeping cool air from the desert coming.

And they’re green!

Once again, one wonders who produces the television side of auto racing. To start, the sound is different in person. On television, the sound that comes through is seemingly a whine, high-pitched and somewhat irritating after prolonged periods of time (ah, so that’s why they get the announcers to talk so much). At the track, the cars produce a more throaty roar, loud, but not like the V8 of a NASCAR Cup car. It’s a rather pleasant sound, and one that someone should figure out how to reproduce for fans at home.

The second thing is, holy—wait…there— no way! Close, so close. Right, so these things are fast. The drivers are knocking laps at close to 210 mph. Okay, in a way, that’s not that big a deal, as a Bugatti Veyron will nail that speed (if you’ve got that kind of money). The impressive feat is that these drivers are sitting inches from the ground in cars without fenders and are driving them into the corners sometimes inches away from each other.

“I sure hope this thing is going to stick.” That’s what they’ve got to be thinking at every corner on every lap. But maybe they’re used to it. Or maybe they know that it WILL stick – which is again impressive as all it would take is a little bobble and the day is over.

How is it that television, in all of its maddening HD, super slo-mo, extreme close-up glory is not able to convey this sense of speed, of skill, of mechanization, of danger? You want to get the ratings up, figure out how to make these two adjustments to the TV product.

There’s a delicious sense of irony here. The television ratings have gone down for the past two seasons, which we discussed a bit. We felt that the combination of Wheldon’s passing and Danica’s jump to NASCAR were the significant causes for such a change. Seems like sound reasoning. Yet a member of the Ganassi team intoned that at-track attendance had been up most of the year, and Auto Club Speedway had followed the trend.

The laps rip off in quick succession. The cars race by in close quarters. It’s beautiful and frightening, tantalizing and anxious. Caution. Things settle down for a bit. Everyone pits, well, except for Sebastian Saavedra and Pippa Mann, who are now done for the night. Dixon’s team makes the move in the pits that jumps him seven positions and keeps him right with Castroneves. For all his laps led, Castroneves was never able to set a significant gap.

Green flag. The wild procession begins anew. Nearly 100 laps have ticked off when the second yellow comes from Carlos Munoz spinning out, and somehow avoiding hitting anyone else.

As fast as those laps went by, the next 150 took much longer. Part of the reason occurs on lap 111, when Justin Wilson spins, collecting Oriol Servia and Josef Newgarden. Tristan Vautier, Simona de Silvestro and James Jakes also become victims in the incident. The clean-up is lengthy. Wilson broke his back and requires extra time to be taken from his car.

The wreck had been something waiting to happen. Not necessarily those drivers and at that time, but some drivers and at some point. The speeds, the proximity, the competitiveness, they were all going to intermingle and the result would be a high-speed wreck.

An almost auditory sigh came from the racetrack as everyone was shown to be alive and in somewhat decent shape. No one had gone airborne. No one tested the catchfence. The ruined cars sat as examples of improved safety.

Back in the garage area, teams looked over these cars. Servia’s had endured a crunch that pushed all four wheels off the ground. Wilson’s team talked about getting the black box for IndyCar to look over. These teams all set about the task of packing up and looking forward to next year with nothing else to be done on this day.

On the track, the race became one of attrition as cars now battled a sand / tire mixture brought on by the area’s climate and the track’s ability to chew on the tires. Some cars sounded healthier than others. In the last twenty laps Dixon pitted to make sure that his vents were clean. Michael Andretti had done so earlier. So did a number of others.

The stop-and-go nature to the ending might not have been great theater, but the final eight laps of green flag racing were certainly entertainment. Will Power beats a nemesis, the Fontana track, and with satisfaction and jubilation spins donuts. Scott Dixon, cruising home as if he had just picked up groceries emerges on pit road, and as he encounters the championship stage, smiles broadly, in recognition what he’d accomplished. Ever the class act, Castroneves makes sure to stop by and offer his congratulations.

A large portion of the crowd remained to celebrate both the champion and the race winner. They took their photos, swam in an air of confetti, and enjoyed the conclusion of the IndyCar season. For all of the sky-is-falling, IndyCar-is-dying, how-long-until-the-sport-is-dead negativity, one would never know it from being at this race.

These fans, and the ones at all the other tracks, give the series hope, they give it the chance to live for another day, a belief that IndyCar still has a place in motorsports. And by the looks of things, there’s a good chance they’ll be back.

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
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11/13/2013 11:55 AM

Painted a picture with words, nice.