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INDYCAR Yanks Fontana From Schedule In ’16

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, August 14 2015
INDYCAR says AutoClub Speedway will not host an event next season. (File photo courtesy of IndyCar Series)

INDYCAR says AutoClub Speedway will not host an event next season. (File photo courtesy of IndyCar Series)

INDYCAR solved its latest controversy involving “pack racing” Friday, when the open-wheel sanctioning body announced that Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., would not return to the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule in 2016.

Graham Rahal scored his second career victory on Auto Club’s 2-mile/D-shaped oval on June 27 in an event featuring a record 80-lead changes among 14 drivers. The win snapped a 124-race winless streak dating to April 6, 2008 in St. Petersburg, Fla., for Rahal _ longest gap between race wins for a driver in Indy car history. And the 80 lead changes during the 250-lapper surpassed the previous Indy car record of 73 set at ACS in November 2001.

However, an unexpected return to pack racing generated a number of emotional driver responses post-race. Reigning series champion Will Power of Team Penske and Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s Tony Kanaan, a former Indianapolis 500 and series champion, both referenced Dan Wheldon’s fatality in similar circumstances at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in October 2011.

Additionally, the race was run on a Saturday in the middle of the afternoon summer heat to accommodate TV partner NBC Sports Network _ circumstances that contributed to a particularly embarrassing small crowd estimated at between 3,000 and 5,000.

INDYCAR said in a statement Friday that it explored several options to retain the event as part of its 2016 calendar, including plans to race later in the season to comply with ACS President Dave Allen’s request to host the season-finale. But the two sides were unable to identify a start time and broadcast window that would not adversely impact television viewership on the East Coast.

“There was a tremendous amount of effort put forth to keep Auto Club Speedway on the calendar. In the end, we could not identify a compromise for 2016 that was amicable for both parties,” Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman & Co., the parent of INDYCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, said in a statement. “We’re thankful to Dave Allen for his efforts in these negotiations. We mutually agreed that our inability to identify a date for next year doesn’t preclude us revisiting these conversations in the future.”

Built by iconic IndyCar Series team-owner Roger Penske, Auto Club Speedway has played host to 14 open-wheel races since 1997 under sanctioning from the Championship Auto Racing Teams, Indy Racing League and INDYCAR. The most recent four open-wheel events (2012-15) were sanctioned by INDYCAR.

Rahal, of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, won under caution in his Honda-powered entry as the cars driven by Ryan Briscoe and Ryan Hunter-Reay crashed battling for position coming to the white flag. Briscoe’s Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda went airborne before crash-landing right-side up, with the Australian immediately giving a thumbs-up to officials and fans.

Kanaan finished second and Marco Andretti of Andretti Autosport placed third.

The race as the third of the season run with superspeedway aero kits produced by Honda and Chevrolet and introduced prior to the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 24. The superspeedway kits also were run, with variations, during the Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth on June 6. The base Dallara chassis and the aero kits were developed after a fiery, 15-car crash killed Wheldon, a two-time Indy 500 winner and former series champ, at the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Oct. 16, 2011.

Kanaan, a vocal critic of pack racing at TMS, said there was a “fine line” between entertaining the fans and racing on the limit. “I understand what the fans want, and if we _ if you say we’re going to have 100,000 people here and this is what we’re going to do, I agree with you that we need to put it out there,” Kanaan said. “To have 5,000 people out there and do this, it’s stupid.

“To be honest with you, it’s not anybody’s fault. We can’t say we chose the right or the wrong aero package because this is new, right?  We went to Texas and it was OK, but I heard a lot of criticism about it being a boring race. So, I don’t have the answer. How can we make it so we can keep the drivers happy and the fans happy?  I really don’t (know). Over the course of this year we can come up with something that…a compromise for both of us. But really, right now I won’t know what to tell you.

“We’re all professional race car drivers. Whatever the package you’re going to give us, we’re going to go out and do it. Whoever doesn’t want to do it doesn’t have to jump in the car and do it, but I haven’t met a single driver that did that.”

Team Penske’s Juan Pablo Montoya, who won his second Indy 500 in May in the debut of Chevrolet’s superspeedway aero kit, also dissed the ACS package.

“Honestly, I was not a fan of the racing we put on,” Montoya said. “What I told INDYCAR (Friday) was that we shouldn’t be racing like this. This is full pack racing and, sooner or later, somebody is going to get hurt. We don’t need to be doing this.”

Andretti classified the racing as “definitely crazy” in an event he led in his Honda-powered entry as late as Laps 221-222. “I mean, it’s fun…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, and I’m not taking anything away from Graham. He drove a heck of a race.”

The late June weekend formerly held by ACS will be occupied by Road America in 2016. INDCAR announced last Saturday that the series would return to the historic, 4.048-mile/14-turn permanent road-course in Elkhart Lake, Wis., next June 24-26. Road America hosted 25 Indy car races from 1982-2007.

Additionally, the sanctioning body previously announced that the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is set for March 11-13, 2016. The Verizon IndyCar Series will headline the weekend on the 1.8-mile temporary circuit overlooking Tampa Bay and utilizing downtown city streets and portions of runways at Albert Whitted Airport.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, August 14 2015
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