IndyCar's third oval race of the year is set to take place this weekend at Auto Club Speedway.
As the Verizon IndyCar Series begins a trio of oval contests and conducts its third oval of the 2015 season, 11th race of the year and second in the vaunted Triple Crown, there are plenty of questions that need to be answered.
Saturday afternoon’s MAVTV 500, a 500-mile, 250-lap chase around Auto Club Speedway’s 2-mile D-shaped oval in Fontana, Calif. will take place at the warmest time of the day in an area where heat is plentiful, shade isn’t and where most people with intelligence will head for the beach cities to escape.
A change in date
That makes one wonder why the series is on the West Coast for this race at this time of year and this time of day. It’s a question only Mark Miles and Boston Consulting Group can answer as they’re the ones that decided to come here the final weekend of June.
Some racing fans will show up to see grand marshal Dave Despain, the erstwhile journalist whose racing/interview television show airs on the MAVTV network. Others will want to see if anyone in the Honda camp (read Graham Rahal’s name right about here) can break the Chevrolet oval strangehold that’s seen the Bow Tie Brigade win all but two races thus far in the 10-race season. Still others might want to venture as to which Chevy driver will taste victory champagne and ring the winner’s bell once crossing the finish line as the first of 23 combatants on a hot Saturday afternoon.
It will be a fight of the strongest and the smartest on the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway oval, and those qualities point directly to the Team Penske and Chip Ganassi stables, as they’ve shown resilience, ingenuity and strength throughout the season. Hard to argue with numbers, in particular since Penske has four full-time Indy car drivers and Ganassi’s run four - and sometimes five - cars in the past 10 events.
A Father’s Day weekend of respite will have done a bit to alleviate the physical and psychological toil this season has caused everyone that works this series. Going almost 10 straight weeks without a rest has been exceptionally difficult on the backs and minds of engineers, mechanics, truck drivers, officials and even media members that travel with the circuit.
Threats unique to Auto Club
A monkey wrench that could get thrown into this weekend’s contest is wildfires. The state of California has been subject to extreme drought, which is causing the state’s fire season to become a year-round affair. While current wildfires have remained at the higher elevations of Victorville and its surrounds, which are above the El Cajon Pass just miles north of Auto Club Speedway at Fontana, it remains to be seen whether these fires could cause difficulty for fire personnel that might otherwise be working this race. Visitors’ ability to breathe might also be affected.
Even if the wildfires don’t impact this 500-mile race, the bumps, the seams and the dust that pervades this racetrack certainly will. While the competitors love the raciness of the 85-foot-wide, D-shaped oval, those seams have caught many unawares - see Will Power 2012 - and the bumps have been difficult for everyone to traverse, just like those seams. Track temperature is another problem all competitors will have to face, and keeping hydrated - both the drivers and their cars - is of the utmost importance on Saturday afternoon.
CFHR could be in the mix
We’re not going to give this one totally to Penske and Ganassi; you can’t really bet against Carpenter Fisher Hartman (CFH) Racing, even though the crew are still learning and understanding their new oval aero kit and how to make it work to their advantage. While the team does have two victories under its belt, both have come from Josef Newgarden, whose strength lies in road-course prowess. Newgarden was victorious at Barber Motorsports Park and at last weekend’s Honda Indy Toronto street course. It will be intriguing to see whether oval master Ed Carpenter has his mojo back after a tough month of May and at Texas.
Andretti Autosport, too, needs to find its core somewhere. This is the worst season Ryan Hunter-Reay has ever had (even when he was working with small and inconsistent teams) and the sole bright spots have been Carlos Munoz’ Detroit 1 weather-aided win and Marco Andretti’s consistency in most races, if not in qualifying. Also in the Honda camp, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports welcomes back Ryan Briscoe as sit-in for injured James Hinchcliffe.
Three rookies in the field
There are several rookies at this race, including Gabby Chavez (No. 98 BHA Honda), who leads the rookie of the year standings and Stefano Coletti (No. 4 KVRT Chevrolet), the only two drivers making full-season runs in 2015. Rookie Sage Karam is in Ganassi’s No. 8 Chevrolet.
Pippa Mann makes her second start here (first was in 2013) in the No. 18 Dale Coyne Honda, as does Jack Hawksworth (No. 41 AJ Foyt Racing Honda), who was the series 2014 rookie of the year. Tristan Vautier, who raced here in 2013 as a Sam Schmidt Motorsports rookie is back in the Coyne No. 19 Honda this weekend.
And there are three previous MAVTV 500 winners in this race, including Tony Kanaan (2014), Will Power (2013) and Carpenter (2012). Helio Castroneves, currently fourth in the point standings was last year’s pole sitter; Will Power holds the INDYCAR two-lap qualifying record at 220.775mph, while former driver Gil de Ferran holds the outright one-lap speed of a massive 241.428 mph, set in October of 2000 in one of Roger Penske’s Honda-powered race cars when CART/Champ Car ran the show.
So we’re off to the Inland Empire on Friday for a full day of practice and qualifying that will set the field for this 500-miler; race day activities begin mid-morning on Saturday. Sure, the temps will be in the low 90s - it’s a dry heat so not as brutal on the body - and tire management will be an issue for all 23 drivers. With the series keeping the same downforce levels as Texas for this contest, teams will have the familiarity of a package they’ve worked with before - always a comfort - but under differing conditions.
The challenges should make for an interesting and challenging contest - and one with gravitas because of its stature as a member of the Triple Crown. Juan Pablo Montoya won the first leg at Indy this May, after taking a win at Pocono last year. He could win his personal triple crown this weekend and be en route to a single-year trio of 500-mile race victories; he’s really that good, maybe even better than his first time ‘round in the Indy cars. Both Montoya and reigning INDYCAR champion Will Power are nominated for ESPN ESPY awards and those facts alone make the idea of seeing the MAVTV 500 intriguing.