Somewhat lost in the lead into Toronto last week, and subsequent chaos during the Honda Indy Toronto, was an announcement that the IZOD IndyCar Series would return to Auto Club Speedway, site of ten prior open wheel races (six under CART sanction, four under INDYCAR).
The addition came as somewhat of a surprise. Auto Club Speedway falls under the umbrella of International Speedway Corporation (ISC), a group owned and operating by the France family, which of course also owns NASCAR.
Prior to ISC’s ownership, the track formerly known as California Speedway operated under the leadership of Roger Penske. Under him, the first races held were hits. Sellout crowds witnessed some breathtaking racing on the sister track to Michigan International Speedway. In 1997, the inaugural running of the Marlboro 500 at Auto Club, Mauricio Gugelmin set a closed course single lap record in qualifying at 240.942 mph (Gil de Ferran later eclipsed that mark at 241.428 mph) and Mark Blundell took victory after Greg Moore, who led late in the going, dropped out with an engine failure.
Year two saw the induction of the Hanford Device (first introduced at Michigan earlier that year), a special rear wing CART implemented at the super speedways that increased drag and improved slipstreaming. The result was some of the most exciting slingshot racing we’ve ever seen, with drivers trading position lap after lap in the draft. Paul Tracy seemed set to win that day before spinning on a late-race restart. Greg Moore assumed the lead, but was a sitting duck when the green flag came back out with one lap remaining. Jimmy Vasser rocketed by Moore to take the win.
However, the tide would turn in the following years. The tragic passing of Moore vastly overshadowed the 1999 race that hosted a dramatic tight decider between Juan Montoya and Dario Franchitti; it remains one of the darkest days in the sport’s history. In 2000, rain postponed the event until Monday and a rash of engine failures saw only a handful of drivers finish.
By 2001, the track was beginning to change ownership hands and, with popularity of open wheel racing dwindling due to the Split, crowds began suffering. INDYCAR took over the race starting in 2002 (CART also ran an event there later in the year, their last at the speedway), but saw crowd sizes continue to fall. It is estimated INDYCAR races between 2002 and 2005 at Auto Club Speedway only drew around 10,000 fans, a far cry from the early years. After 2005, despite on-track action that continued to amaze, INDYCAR dropped the facility from the schedule.
However, with the series beginning to gain momentum, the two entities have joined back together for a night race starting in the Fall of 2012. INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard indicated that a return to the 2-mile oval makes perfect sense for the revitalized series. “No. 1, it's one of the largest markets in the United States,” Bernard explained. "We need more ovals. We're trying to keep a balanced series. We also think a night race there will be very exciting. It has a lot of history with IndyCar. We think they're some very solid partners that we can bring on to enhance the event.”
However, the addition comes as a surprise one year after INDYCAR dropped Kansas Speedway, Watkins Glen International, Chicagoland Speedway, and Homestead-Miami Speedway, all tracks owned by ISC, under the belief that events there were not given sufficient promotion, resulting the small crowds.
Track President Gilian Zucker points out, though, the increased momentum for INDYCAR will help bring the crowds back. “There isn't a day that goes by that we don't have fans asking for the return of open-wheel racing," Zucker said. "When the split happened with open-wheel racing, there were fans that were disappointed about what was going on in the industry. ome of them showed that disappointment by not attending events. Now that the series is so cohesive, has so much momentum behind it, with all the changes that Randy made in the past year, the excitement he's bringing to the sport, I think the timing is just absolutely right.”
Zucker added that support from other partners and sponsors will also allow them to be more aggressive in their promotion, a concern that all had with races held at ISC venues. "We reached out to all (promotional partners) and said, 'If we're able to bring an event like this back to Southern California, would you be interested in participating?' The overwhelming response to that was absolutely. I think our sponsors are really, really excited about what's going on in the series. They're going to show it through promotional activation. By bringing back a night event, we feel that will even enhance it more for fans. o we fully expect to have a big crowd."
The four races INDYCAR sanctioned were every bit as exciting as those that CART oversaw. Sam Hornish Jr. banged wheels with Jacques Lazier as they battled for the win 2002, with Hornish coming out on top. The 2003 event saw Hornish win once again in a race that had only one caution and was one of the fastest IndyCar races ever under any sanctioning. Adrian Fernandez beat Tony Kanaan by a nose in 2004, while Dario Franchitti edged out Kanaan in 2005 (though not without controversy, as Kanaan appeared to lift as they approached the start/finish line) and then dedicated the victory to the aforementioned Greg Moore, a good friend of Franchitti’s.
In terms of on-track action, bringing back Auto Club Speedway is a win-win. INDYCAR gets another oval on the schedule, and one with a history of great racing at that, while Auto Club Speedway now brings in a high-quality series to replace the Sprint Cup date it lost. We all hope that the promotional and commercial sides will be equally as successful.