Sunday June 28, 2015
FONTANA, Calif. – It was a race that makes the Verizon IndyCar Series so spectacular yet so ugly and dangerous all at the same time.
Honda driver Graham Rahal broke a seven-year losing streak by driving to victory in Saturday’s MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway. But his victory in the closest example of “Pack Racing” since Dan Wheldon was killed at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Oct. 16, 2011 cast a grim reminder of what can happen in a high-speed, IndyCar race on a high-banked oval.
On the checkered flag lap, the race ended when Juan Pablo Montoya’s Chevrolet made contact with Ryan Hunter-Reay’s Honda, sending it into Ryan Briscoe’s Honda. Briscoe’s car then went airborne, flipped several times before landing in the grass inside the frontstretch upside-down.
Neither driver was injured but it was the spectacular crash that many of the drivers in Saturday’s race feared.
For the record, Rahal scored his second career victory by .3157 of a second over Tony Kanaan’s Chevrolet. Marco Andretti’s Honda was third followed by Montoya’s Chevrolet. Rookie driver Sage Karam’s Chevrolet was fifth followed by Scott Dixon’s Chevy, James Jake’s Honda. Charlie Kimball’s Chevrolet was eighth followed by Simon Pagenaud’s Chevy and Jack Hawksworth’s Honda.
There was an IndyCar record 80 lead changes between 14 drivers breaking the previous record of 73 set in the Nov. 21, 2001 CART race at this track. Will Power led 62 laps the most of any driver in the race and teammate Helio Castroneves was next with 43. Andretti’s Honda was in front 31 times – the same as another Honda driven by Takuma Sato.
Rahal led 15 laps including the checkered flag lap.
“It’s been a long, long time,” Rahal said. “I feel like we’ve earned it this year. We’ve tried to be in contention every time. The guys have been doing a heck of a job and I couldn’t be more thankful for this team and Steak ‘n Shake for coming on board, Mi-Jack and Mike Lanigan, Dave Letterman and my dad (Bobby Rahal) and everybody who believed in us.
“It was nuts. I know there was a lot of close wheel-to-wheel action out there — probably closer than most drivers would like. I think the fans that did show up got a heck of a show.”
It was wild racing from the green flag throughout as the average speed was 210.437 mph through the first 125 laps – the halfway point of the race. Castroneves was the leader at that point followed by Rahal’s Honda, Kanaan’s Chevy and Briscoe’s Honda.
By lap 132 there were 43 lead changes – the most of any Verizon IndyCar Series race this season.
Castroneves’ time at the front ended on lap 136 when he hit the wall on the inside of turn two and spun around without going airborne after Rahal’s Honda had to slow up for traffic. Ryan Briscoe’s Honda clipped Castroneves and his car slid across the apron and made very light contact with the infield retaining wall.
After 15 laps of caution racing resumed with the same intensity as before. INDYCAR Race Control penalized Briscoe for avoidable contact in the crash with Castroneves, who had his Chevrolet repaired and returned to the track for two laps before parking the car in pit lane.
“Unfortunately, Rahal was coming up on me and squeezing me on the top and I started lifting,” Castroneves said. “One lap before he was squeezing me and I’m thinking, ‘Dude, you don’t need to do that.’ Briscoe turned into me and it was a tough one. I was a long ride sideways. It’s a shame to finish like this but we’re going to change the toe links and try to keep going.
“For me it was a matter of take it easy for half the race. You can’t get everyone to do the same thing.”
On lap 158, CFH Racing teammates Josef Newgarden and owner/driver Ed Carpenter both crashed in turn four. Carpenter’s Chevrolet washed up the track directly into Newgarden’s path.
“I got into turn three with a pack of cars and didn’t want to go in the second lane but got shuffled down there, had understeer and I didn’t get much information from my spotter on that one,” Carpenter said. “It’s unfortunate to be in a race and take out my teammate. It sucks pretty bad.”
Newgarden had won the most recent Verizon IndyCar Series race in the Honda Indy Toronto on June 14.
“That’s racing – the only reason we got together is we were both racing each other at that moment,” Newgarden said. “It’s one of those deals – just racing.”
The green flag waved with Andretti teammates Carlos Munoz and Marco Andretti out front on lap 168.
Rahal, one of the prime contenders for the victory, made his pit stop but pulled out of his pit with the fuel hose still attached, hampering his chance at victory but not ending it completely. The fuel was flowing but the fueler pulled out and then put back on as Rahal was pulling out in a tremendous miscommunication during the green flag stop.
Instead of assessing a drive through penalty INDYCAR officials made the curious decision to do a “post-race review” and that would provide some controversy to Rahal’s win.
Power was in front on lap 190 followed by Dixon when the fuel buckeye from Rahal’s car came out on the backstretch of the track.
At that point of the race there had already been 60 lead changes.
Sato, another main contender for the win, had his entire rear wing assembly replaced during the caution putting him down one lap.
Green flag racing resumed on lap 200 with Andretti’s Honda in front of Montoya’s Chevy followed by Power, Dixon and Briscoe.
Ryan Hunter-Reay, in the midst of a miserable season, took the lead before Briscoe moved his car in front. A large piece of debris on the race track brought out the yellow flag on lap 220 after Dixon hit the back of Carlos Munoz’s Honda.
The green flag waved with 23 laps to go and Power in the lead and the racing even more intense with the lead group of cars in four-wide formation.
Briscoe shot into the lead on lap 234 but Power came back to nose ahead with Kanaan to the outside.
With 10 laps to go Briscoe was the leader in front of Rahal, Kanaan, Power and Sato before a multi-car crash with Power and Sato crashed in turn four. Power tossed his steering wheel out of the cockpit in disgust. Power angrily pushed one of the INDYCAR Medical Staff after getting out of the car.
Sato’s car bounced off of Dixon’s before it took a hard hit into the wall. The race was red flagged on lap 245.
“It’s really disappointing because we sat down after Las Vegas with INDYCAR and discussed why we should never have a pack race,” said Team Penske President Tim Cindric. “Why we are having a rack race here today I have no idea.”
Sato’s team owner, the legendary A.J. Foyt, had a differing viewpoint of the style of racing.
“We had a great car today and had a great job driving it but it just wasn’t our day,” Foyt said. “I enjoyed this type of racing back when I was doing it. I think it’s a great race. It just wasn’t our day. That’s just racing.”
Once the red flag was lifted the field restarted the race with four laps to go before the big crash ended with Rahal scoring the win. He pulled his Honda to victory where less than 100 yards away safety workers were tending to the crash scene that involved Briscoe and Hunter-Reay.
“It was a really exciting race, to say the least,” Briscoe said after he was checked and released by the INDYCAR Medical Staff. “I had a really good car and was able to make the low line work. We passed a lot of guys down there so it was fun to be up front. Coming through the field a couple of times, it was awesome. I was really enjoying myself and I was able to be aggressive.
“With a lap to go, in our position, I had some momentum coming down the front stretch. I was going to take that low line into one and two, and felt like we were going to come home with a top three, for sure. Unfortunately, Hunter-Reay got turned around, I had nowhere to go and she went flying. Thankfully, I’m alright and no big deal. Now we look forward to the next one.”
Rahal’s penalty for leaving the pits with the fuel hose intact will not be made until midweek. It will likely include a fine and points penalty but he will probably keep the victory.
It just added to the tension of an incredibly tense day at Auto Club Speedway.