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Too Bad Race Sizzled Only at the Finish

Commentary: Too much speed, sun and not enough competitive racing mar Indy car racing's return to Southland.

September 29, 1997|MIKE KUPPER | TIMES SENIOR ASSISTANT SPORTS EDITOR

FONTANA — Oval-track Indy car racing returned to Southern California on Sunday with CART's Marlboro 500 at the new California Speedway, amid great expectations.

Were those expectations met?

Yes and no might be a kind answer but, really, you pretty well know you're in for a long, probably dull afternoon when the race starts with the yellow flag flying, instead of the race cars. And, sure, there was a flurry of excitement 10 laps before the finish, when leader Greg Moore's engine went up in flames and Mark Blundell outguessed Jimmy Vasser and won the race.

But as a competitive event, it left a lot to be desired. There was plenty of speed, but not much racing. Lead changes on the track were few and far between.

It was almost as if, given another great opportunity, CART, which boasts of having the best drivers in the best cars, put its best foot forward and stumbled.

And if it's not exactly a recurring theme, it has happened before. In late May of 1996, eager to show in its newly minted U.S. 500 at Michigan International Speedway that it could put on a race better than the Indianapolis 500, which was being raced that very day, a 12-car pileup as the field accelerated to take the green flag at the start made a mockery of CART's plan.

Obviously, not every race is going to be a great race, any more than every NFL game is going to be a great game. But you kind of hope that a new 500-mile race on a new superspeedway is going to be a better show than the typically over-hyped Super Bowl.

Not that what happened here Sunday was necessarily something CART, or the Speedway, did or didn't do. There is no controlling the weather, for instance, and 100-degree temperatures don't often make for good racing. The extreme heat here caused tire problems, and unsure footing at 230 mph does not foster a deep desire to dice with the guy next to you, who might also be on slippery rubber.

It also affects the drivers more directly.

"It was so hot . . . I had to put my feet off the floor," said third-place finisher Adrian Fernandez.

Remarked winner Mark Blundell: "When body temperature rises, concentration lapses."

And runner-up Jimmy Vasser got out of his car after the race feeling dizzy.

There was no way of knowing, either, that the new track was going to be as fast as it was. And as strange as it may seem, drivers are not always nuts about speed. They'll go as fast as they can, but they don't necessarily like it.

"This place is too quick--it's too fast," Blundell said, admitting that he had waited until the end to make a move.

"It is fast," Fernandez agreed. "When something goes wrong, you see the damage and it's pretty scary."

Fortunately, relief is on the way, both for the weather during race weekend here and for the speeds.

The season-ending 500-miler here next year is scheduled for Nov. 1, when it certainly should be cooler, and high on CART's off-season agenda is a reduction of speeds. Both changes should make for considerably better racing.

But that's next season, and never again will there be another first CART race on the California Speedway. Too bad the first couldn't have been more memorable.

On the other hand, all's well that ends well. The race didn't start well and it wasn't very exciting but it was a safe race, which is saying a lot.

And the people in charge considered it a rousing success.

"I would have liked to have seen a different start but we had a very competitive finish," CART President Andrew Craig said. "The finish [of the race] was an exciting finish to the weekend."

Said speedway President Greg Penske: "We had 27 cars start and 17 finished [15, actually]. We had six or seven cars on the lead lap [two, actually, at the finish], and we had a safe race with no big incidents. The guests I talked to couldn't believe the speed."

OK, but most who saw it will not fondly recall the inaugural CART race on the new California Speedway as a great race. And that's too bad. Because expectations were great.

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