The track that began its life as California Speedway started out with an IndyCar bang. Crowds reportedly north of 70,000 saw a dramatic initial two races; the inaugural 1997 event was won Mark Blundell after leader Greg Moore suffered an engine failure, while the ’98 event was a Hanford device duel in which Jimmy Vasser passed Moore on a late-race restart.
Unfortunately, the enthusiasm and excitement ran dry, a result of a number of circumstances (Moore’s tragic passing at the track in ’99, the open wheel split, change of track ownership, etc.) and the track was off the open wheel map after 2005.
It came as a surprise when track president Gillian Zucker agreed to bring IndyCars back to the facility, now named Auto Club Speedway, and host a season finale at that. It broke a recent trend of eliminating ISC-owned venues and was an enormous risk, given the sparse crowds that plagued races held there through the 2000s.
However, any skepticism was erased at the end of Saturday night’s thriller. The crowd, though dispersed among the track’s widespread grandstands, was estimated at a minimum of 20,000, with many assuring the figure was close to 30,000. The turnout was easily above average, a result of effective and creative promotion on the part of Zucker and track staff.
What’s more, they drew such attendance on a day that was far from friendly. Although rain was never a problem, the heat was. The ambient temperature approached 104 degrees when the race began, and cooled off only marginally the remainder of the night. The intense heat would have deterred many fans from attending on short notice, so it’s possible the crowd could have been higher had the conditions been slightly cooler.
Of course, those in attendance were treated to yet another outstanding oval race. With the outside the preferred line, passes were set up by drivers slip-streaming each other and jumping to the outside down the straightaways or by diving to the inside and sliding up in front other cars (the short track “slide job”). It was racing at its finest, with a multitude of drivers leading, putting themselves in position to possibly capture a win.
The show was made even better when Beaux Barfield elected to red flag the race after Tony Kanaan crashed with nine laps remaining. It was possible that the Holmatro Safety Team could have completed the cleanup in time for a green-flag finish, but stopping the event allowed them to thoroughly clean the wreckage without putting the race’s conclusion in jeopardy. It was the right call and may have given the fans in attendance the biggest thrill of the night.
As the Izod IndyCar Series looks at add more ovals to its schedule, Auto Club Speedway presented itself as a potential showcase for INDYCAR and proved it has the potential to become a stalwart in years to come.