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Scene at Auto Club Speedway

September 14, 2012

Briscoe was quick in morning practice
Anne Proffit photo

Greetings from an extremely hot Auto Club Speedway where the Indy cars are holding their season finale, the MAVTV 500, which will be the second 500-mile oval race of the season. The two-mile Auto Club Speedway at Fontana hasn’t seen the Indycars for nearly half a decade and, we learned this morning, the surface was reground earlier in the year.

The grinding has caused quite a few cars to cut tires. Significantly, a Firestone tire engineer told me, on Wednesday during the pre-race open test, that he thought there might have been more cuts in that single afternoon than during the entire Indianapolis 500 race meeting. That’s a lot.

This is the 11th Indy car race at this track; CART/Champ Car came here from the track’s opening through to 2002. The IZOD IndyCar Series is making its fifth visit to the Fontana, California facility.

The pre-qualifying late morning practice was interesting, with several stoppages for, you guessed it, cut tires. During that practice, Simona de Silvestro broke (yet another) Lotus engine and will take the 10-place penalty from the back of the grid (meaning she’ll stay where she is) when her team installs her 10th Lotus engine of the year. Justin Wilson spun in the second turn and brought out the caution with about 35 minutes remaining in the 1.5-hour practice; he was fine but the No. 18 Dallara/Honda/Firestone Indy car sustained left front and rear damage, as well as some damage to the undertray, the team said.

It was no surprise to see Team Penske’s Ryan Briscoe at the top of the time sheets after practice; it shouldn’t be a shock to see Ed Carpenter second, either – he is an oval master. Dario Franchitti was third, championship leader Will Power took fourth and teammate Helio Castroneves  was fifth. Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Marco Andretti, JR Hildebrand and Graham Rahal rounded out the top 10. On Wednesday afternoon, one of Chevy’s technicians said, “Damn, those Target cars look good here.” I told him not to be so darn greedy – Chevy’s one the manufacturer’s title already – but he said he wanted it all. Just a racer…

Wandering around the paddock after practice, I asked Steve Newey of Team Barracuda why they didn’t test on Wednesday and he cited funding concerns. Then I asked him how they did in the morning practice and he responded that they were 25th of 26 cars entered. They had to make spring adjustments and also had a few electronics gremlins during the practice session. Perhaps they’d be in better condition if they’d tested?

As for those “to the rear” engine changes, these are the drivers biting the bullet and the type of engine they’re using: Castroneves, Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe, all fitting their sixth Chevrolet engines; Scott Dixon, Wade Cunningham (driving the No. 14 AJ Foyt Enterprises car – and more about that in a bit), Wilson, Charlie Kimball, Simon Pagenaud and Tagliani for Honda; de Silvestro’s Lotus is also being changed – again.

Cunningham got the call to drive the No. 14 when Mike Conway decided, after testing here on Wednesday, that he didn’t want to drive on the ovals any longer. The Briton’s severe accident at Indy in 2010 likely still unnerves him – big injuries will do that – and his bravery in making the decision and realizing this was the right thing for him to do certainly wins my admiration. In racing, if you don’t feel the adrenaline and the desire, it’s time to go. I wish Mike, whom I respected well before he made this call, only the best in his future. Honesty like that deserves some reward; hopefully Conway gets another drive in a non-oval series.

“Roger invited me,” so AJ Allmendinger put on his best Penske black and came to Auto Club Speedway for the MAVTV 500 this weekend. Already he’s getting mobbed by the friends the former Champ Car driver acquired during his time in Skip Barber, Atlantic and in the Champ cars. He told me he had plenty of free time, so why not?

Qualifying starts in about 20 minutes so that’s all for now…

By Anne Proffit

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