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AUTO RACING

IndyCars going around in circles

Series returns to Fontana after seven-year absence, but it's still tinkering. Saturday's 500-mile race will decide season's champion.

September 13, 2012|By Jim Peltz
  • Reigning IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti will look to win Saturday night at Auto Club Speedway as the series races in Fontana for the first time in seven years.
Reigning IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti will look to win Saturday… (Jeff Cross / Getty Images )

The last time Indy-style race cars swept around the two-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana was seven years ago, and it was a race to remember.

Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan came to the finish line side by side at more than 200 mph. Franchitti then edged ahead to win as Franchitti's wife, actress Ashley Judd, burst into joyful tears on pit road.

But as they celebrated, the race already had been dropped from the next year's schedule, in no small part because the 92,000-seat facility — then called California Speedway — was less than half full that October day in 2005.

Now, the Izod IndyCar Series is giving Fontana another try with a race Saturday night, even though the crowd is expected again to be relatively small because the series is struggling to regain popularity after years of problems.

Saturday's MAVTV 500 has several notable features: It's the final event in the series' 15-race schedule, this year's champion will be decided there and it's a 500-mile race under the lights on a very fast track.

In terms of speeds and length, the Auto Club Speedway oval is the closest venue the series has to the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway, site of the sport's crown-jewel Indianapolis 500.

Indeed, the IndyCar record for the fastest lap, 241.428 mph, was recorded not at Indianapolis but at Fontana in 2000 by Gil de Ferran, who then was driving for team owner Roger Penske.

It was Penske who built the 568-acre Auto Club Speedway in the mid-1990s and he returns with a chance to win another championship.

Australian Will Power, one of Penske's three current drivers, leads the title standings by 17 points over Ryan Hunter-Reay of the Andretti Autosport team.

"We have two of the best who are going to go head to head in Fontana," IndyCar Chief Executive Randy Bernard said.

But it remains to be seen whether the tight championship battle helps drum up attention for the IndyCar series, which is grappling with weak attendance and low TV ratings at many races, especially against more popular NASCAR stock-car racing.

This year's Indy 500 on ABC had a ratings boost, to 4.3 from 4.0 a year earlier, with nearly 5 million households turning in, according to Nielsen.

But no other IndyCar race — many of which are shown on the NBC Sports Network, formerly Versus — had a rating above 1.0 this year. NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races routinely have ratings between 3.0 and 4.5.

That's only one of the issues faced by Bernard, who was hired in 2010 to bolster the series after a civil war among team owners and other rival factions split the sport into two series for 12 years.

The sport reunified in 2008, but it has struggled to rebuild its popularity despite Bernard's initiatives, which included a new race car this year.

"Randy's got a tough job," said Andretti Autosport owner Michael Andretti. "I wouldn't want it."

Another initiative ended in disaster last October when Dan Wheldon, a two-time Indy 500 winner who was driving part time, was tapped to race in the season finale in Las Vegas with a $5-million prize to be split between Wheldon and a fan if he won. But Wheldon was killed in multi-car crash.

Bernard has more problems this year. Some team owners are annoyed with what they say are high prices for replacement parts on the new car. Bernard, whose contract runs through 2014, also said in late May that at least one unidentified team owner was trying to get him fired.

And there's the recurring criticism that IndyCar's schedule has too many races on streets and curvy road courses (10 this year) and not enough on oval tracks such as Fontana.

Even so, Bernard is pressing on. He hopes to have 19 races in 2013, up from 15 this year, and he's proposing doubleheaders in which separate IndyCar races would be held Saturday and Sunday on the same weekend at the same track.

"I hope to see at least two doubleheaders [next year] because I think that helps develop story lines and helps grow the business and viewership," he said.

"This has been a sport that has had issues for 15 years. We are making a business model that works. It takes time."

james.peltz@latimes.com

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