Road America and Auto Club have had an on/off relationship with IndyCar for some time. In 2016, the exceptional oval is dropping from the calendar as the exceptional road course returns.
Road America is returning to the Verizon IndyCar Series while Auto Club Speedway says adios. This type of scenario is being replayed on an annual basis for the Indy cars, who seem - as team co-owner and quadriplegic Sam Schmidt adroitly states - to be taking as many steps in reverse as forward (this, obviously is a paraphrase, not precisely as Sam actually said).
Both of these circuits, the former a serpentine, technically challenging 4.048-mile, 14-turn road course and the latter a daunting 2-mile oval have come and gone on the Indy car schedule more than once.
Fontana's IndyCar backstory
Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. was built by Roger Penske and opened in 1997 with the Winston West, NASCAR Cup and CART series finale. CART used the venue to hold its end-of-season races until 2002; the 2003 season finale was cancelled due to wildfires. It wasn’t a terribly lucky track for that series, as rising superstar Greg Moore perished in the Halloween race in 1999, an event that essentially foretold the end of the series.
Both Champ Car and the Indy Racing League raced at the Fontana track in 2002; IRL ran in the spring and Champ Car that fall, with Jimmy Vasser, current co-owner of KV/KVSH in the IndyCar Series becoming a two-time Fontana winner (1998). Sam Hornish Jr won one of the closest races ever held at Fontana in 2002, when the 400-miler ended with a margin of victory of 0.028 seconds for the Ohioan over Buddy Lazier.
The Indy cars stepped away from Auto Club Speedway after their October 2005 date (won by Dario Franchitti) and didn’t return until September of 2012 when Ed Carpenter secured his second career victory in the series.
This year’s race at Fontana could have been THE most competitive contest outside some recent Indy 500s but, with an early-afternoon June date in the desert, it was guaranteed to be a ghost town. And it was, causing the track to maintain that it either needed to be the season finale or forget about it. INDYCAR and chairman Mark Miles decided the latter idea was better than holding a season finale in the Los Angeles area in late summer or early fall. After all, it’s better to bury your new champion’s achievements than to herald them in a major media city.
Road America's IndyCar backstory
Then there’s Road America, the Eurocentric road course all drivers love and want to have on his or her resume as a winner. CART/Champ Car ran at Elkhart Lake from 1982 through 2007; there was no race in 2005. Along the way there have been both triumphs and tragedies; the 14-corner road course has been the site of many first-time victories for drivers like Jacques Villeneuve, Dario Franchitti, Alex Tagliani and Bruno Junqueira. (It was also on the F5000 tour in 1975 when that series was co-sanctioned by SCCA and USAC - this writer will never forget seeing Gordon Johncock slide through T14 every single lap).
(Sports car ace driver Tommy Kendall broke Mark Donohue’s TransAm record of 10 wins in 13 races with his own 11 (consecutive) of 13, achieved at Road America in 1997, also the year that Alessandro Zanardi became the King of CART. The following day Kendall’s body was the same color as the heavy sky after celebrating all night; it rained in monsoon manner for the Champ Car race and finally broadcaster Kendall was rescued from a hoist in the Turn 5 area… he then shivered in the broadcast room adjacent to the media center.)
A.J. Foyt Jr’s career was shortened by an abysmal accident in the first turn kitty litter and adjoining tree-line; Cristiano da Matta nearly died at this track after a freak meeting with a deer as the 2002 Champ Car titleholder drove up from Turn 5. But those incidents aren’t what kept Road America from being part of the INDYCAR schedule after Champ Car’s final visit in 2007 - it was money. And it took until 2015 for the track and series to devise a manner of returning to partner one another in the upcoming, 2016 season.
Out with one, in with the other
So INDYCAR says adieu to one of its most exciting oval tracks and says hello again to one amazing road circuit where strategy is a huge part of both success and failure. One door closes; another opens. Hopefully we’ve not seen the last of Auto Club Speedway or the last of Road America’s neighbor, The Milwaukee Mile with these scheduling changes. There’s enough weekends of the year for all to co-exist, but the only way that’ll happen is with an imprimatur from Mark Miles. And Boston Consulting Group.
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