Craig Murto: IndyCar’s last good race?

The MavTV 500 IndyCar race at California’s Auto Club Speedway in Fontana may have been the most exciting IndyCar race in at least five years.

Graham Rahal took the win, the second of his career, ending a 125-race drought. There was a record 80 lead changes in the 250-lap affair.

Tony Kanaan finished second, and Marco Andretti third. Juan Pablo Montoya finished fourth and increased his points lead in the championship standings.

It was an incredible race, with three-and four-wide racing throughout the event. It was just the kind of excitement IndyCar needs to help rebuild its fan base. And there were only 3,000 people in the grandstands.

There are two main reasons for the lack of attendance. First, scheduling. It’s June in Southern California; why was this race run in the heat of the afternoon? It was in the 90s, and there wasn’t much shade. If this race was going to be held in June, it should have been run at night. Also, the date of this event keeps changing. How can any race gain momentum with fans if they can’t plan for it in advance. Pick a date and time that’s comfortable with fans and stick to it.

The other main reason the stands in California were empty is that the last IndyCar race held on an oval was a snoozer. Texas — once known for the kind of pack racing we saw in California on Saturday — was boring. IndyCar and the teams had not come to grips with the new aero package. Following Texas, IndyCar added more down force.

Now, after adjusting the aero, IndyCar had probably the most exciting race it’s ever held. Will this bring the fans back? Not if it’s the last one of its kind.

Penske Racing’a Tim Cindric was the first person interviewed on TV to recall the horrible tragedy at Las Vegas in 2011 that killed Dan Wheldon. Cindric compared the racing in California to the pack racing in Las Vegas that day, and wondered aloud why it was allowed.

Will Power called it “crazy.” Tony Kanaan didn’t like it, and Montoya thought it was unnecessary.

But A.J. Foyt noted that in his day they raced that way “just fine.” He said he liked the close competition, noting that “at least they can race.” And Marc Andretti said he thought the racing was fun, though he admitted it was “extremely dangerous.” But he also noted, “It’s what we signed up for.”

The edge of my seat was worn out by the end of the race. As the race went on I thought, “If they race like this every week, nobody will watch NASCAR again.”

But if some drivers have their way, we’ll never see a race like this again.

The drivers complaining about the pack racing appear to outnumber those who just strap in and race. So we’ll end up with some aero package and/or tire compound that doesn’t allow cars to draft as well, and doesn’t allow cars to run as close to each other. As a result, the race in Texas will be the look of IndyCar superspeedway racing, and they’ll be lucky to get 3,000 fans in the stands regardless when they hold the race.

Gil de Ferran has the IndyCar qualifying record of over 240 mph in an IndyCar at Auto Club Speedway, set in 2000. Today the cars are going 220. They were going just as fast the day Dan Wheldon was killed on the mile-and-a-half at Las Vegas. And though the pack racing in Las Vegas that day certainly contributed to the horrible accident that took Wheldon’s life, he was killed when his car got into the catch fence; the same way Jeff Krosnoff was killed years ago on a street circuit. The only way to prevent that would be to put a roof on the car. There are certain risks to open-wheel, open-cockpit racing that don’t go away.

To his credit, driver Ed Carpenter — who was involved in an accident — defended the racing (which he denied was pack racing), and in an interview with USA Today said, “I just hate that the first thing that guys do is get out and slam the sport we’re a part of. If you don’t want to do it, go somewhere else. There’s plenty of other guys who want to be here.”

Graham Rahal won one of the most exciting IndyCar races ever held. Will it turn out to be the last race of its kind ever held?

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.