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By Jan Wagner - syndicated weekly columnist/photojournalist
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Toyota Indy 400 at California Speedway

 

I’m getting good at finding my way from San Diego to California Speedway. My previous trip there was for the NASCAR NEXTEL CUP SERIES race that finished under the lights. I hardly got my column for that race done and it was time for another trip to the speedway. Its tough but someone has to do it!


IRL racing at California Speedway

This time the event was the Toyota Indy 400 – the second to the last Indy Racing League race of 2004. There was a lot at stake, not the least of which was the season championship. Tony Kanaan was in a strong position to clinch it. He didn’t have to win the race but he had to place well. In 400 miles (200 laps) we would know the outcome.


Tony Kanaan pit stop

This year’s championship would most certainly elude almost all of the other racers, so for them winning this race was everything. That bode well for a very exciting race and the fans were not disappointed.

All things considered, the fan turnout was disappointing. Whereas a few weeks earlier I got to the freeway exit for the track two hours early for the NASCAR race and almost missed the start it was so crowded, I almost thought I’d arrived at the IRL race on the wrong day. It was that different in terms of attendance. The parking lots and the stands reflected the greatly reduced number of spectators.


Fernandez leading a pack of cars

I am really at a loss to say why. Especially now that the engine reliability is much better and the racers have developed a loyal and enthusiastic following, as compared to when the series broke away from CART, the cars run hard for the entire race length. In comparison to the performance of NASCAR stock cars, the quickest qualifying IRL car, driven by Helio Castroneves, did a lap in a tick over 33 seconds at 217.479 mph, while the Pop Secret 500 pole-winning NASCAR stock car of Brian Vickers ‘only’ managed a 38.417 at 187.417 mph. Of course we’re comparing apples and oranges, but the point I’m trying to make here is that IRL racing is VERY fast.


Adrian Fernandez (5) and Townsend Bell (2) race

It is also very competitive. You never know who is going to win from race to race and the lead changes often, unlike in other big racing series such as Formula One.

The next time IRL racing comes to California Speedway, do yourself a favor. Take a trip up there and check it out. They offer a wonderful racing experience. For more information on racing at California Speedway, go to www.californiaspeedway.com.

 

For much of the race the action was comprised of competing for position on the track and in the pits. The race looked like it might run relatively caution free, and at a blistering pace. Tony Kanaan was in an excellent position to not only pull off the season championship but also the race win. However, things got especially interesting in the last few laps.

I was in one of the fenced-in enclosures taking photographs. I had moved from Turn One (at the end of the front straight) to the entrance to the front straight, at the exit to Turn Four. I had an unobstructed view all the way to the start/finish line and beyond. It was exhilarating, snapping photos as the car raced past me quicker than I could turn to follow them.

At lap 186, California’s Alex Barron, driving for Eddie Cheever’s Red Bull Cheever Racing, made contact with the wall in Turn Two. He was okay but unfortunately his car was finished for the day. A wrecker towed it away.


Tomas Enge (red #20) & Tomas Scheckter (yellow #4) collide

The race resumed. Then, with just under ten laps to go, I got an up close and personal look at what fire and flying car parts look like when they pass by at around 200 mph! The car of the Czech Republic’s Tomas Enge, who was driving for Patrick Racing, spun in Turn Four and came into violent contact with Tomas Scheckter’s yellow Pennzoil Panther car. What are the odds that two drivers with the name ‘Tomas’ would crash into each other? Anyway, I kept snapping pictures as I sort of ducked behind the half-height wall separating me from various projectiles. It was quite exciting, and I wasn’t even in one of the cars!


Track workers hustled

The track workers did an incredible job of cleaning up the mess quickly, as they sprinted around the track and removed debris.


Race winner Adrian Fernandez

The race resumed and ended under green, with a popular win by Adrian Fernandez of Mexico City, driving a Dallara with Honda power. The fans went wild.


Series Champion Tony Kanaan

Another popular result was that Tony Kanaan, driving for Michael Andretti’s Team 7-Eleven, clinched the championship with his close second place finish – also with Honda power. Dan Wheldon, driving another Andretti car, came in third. The jubilant drivers of all four Andretti Green Racing cars entertained the fans by smoking their tires and doing some driving in formation after the race.

It was a gratifying pair of victories for Honda. Soichiro Honda, the company’s founder, was a racer. Honda entered Formula One competition way back in 1964. They’ve earned their success on the track.

 
A colossal effort and a job well done

At the time of this writing there will be one more IRL race this year. It is scheduled for October 17 at the 1.5 mile oval of Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. It, too, should be very exciting.

As always, please share your stories and send your comments to AutoMatters@gmail.com. Enjoy the archives and more at www.AutoMatters.net. Drive safely and do join me again next time.

 

Copyright © 2004, 2006 Jan R. Wagner – #121r1 AutoMatters

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