With the IndyCar Series returning to Auto Club Speedway in 2012 for the first time in seven years, three moments immediately come to mind.
The first is Gil de Ferran breaking the world record in qualifying by turning a lap at 241.426 mph around the two-mile oval in 2000. The second is the death of driver Greg Moore in 1999. The third is Adrian Fernandez winning in 2004 before thousands of empty seats in the grandstands.
Auto Club Speedway and the IndyCar Series have always made a great combination for speed and racing. It is a much better mix than Auto Club Speedway and NASCAR. The track was made for open-wheel cars, be they from CART, Champ Car or IndyCar.
The track has also scared the snot out of drivers. De Ferran talks about how he feared for his life during his world-record qualifying run. Dario Franchitti, who won the IndyCar Series race at Auto Club Speedway in 2005, quickly learned to respect the track.
Speed became synonymous with the Fontana track almost from its inception. Sam Hornish recorded the track record for the fastest average speed (207.151 mph) in winning the IndyCar Series race in 2003. At that same race, Helio Castroneves set the IndyCar Series qualifying record at 226.757 mph.
"This racetrack was built by the Penskes, built with open-wheel racing in mind," Auto Club Speedway president Gillian Zucker said. "In our minds, this is the most competitive place to see open-wheel racing in the country. We hold the world speed record for the fastest lap of 241 miles an hour. We know that the finishes here have been unlike any other."
Tragedy struck the track in 1999, when Moore, one of the rising stars of the old Championship Auto Racing Teams Series, died after crashing during a race. A cloud was cast over the track as being too dangerous for Indy cars and open-wheel race cars.
James Hinchliffe, a fellow driver from Canada who races for Newman Haas Racing, was asked about returning to Auto Club Speedway, the track where Moore was killed.
"He was my hero coming up. My family was all big Greg Moore fans," Hinchcliffe said. "I was watching the race that day. It was a very sad day. As a young driver sort of making decisions about whether or not he wanted to put the effort and commitment to making a career in racing, having the guy you idolize be killed in a race put a lot of question marks over things, not only for me but obviously for my parents. So it was a very tough time for the whole family."
By the time the IndyCar Series returns to Auto Club Speedway, the cars will be much different than the ones racing now. They will have smaller engines, but in some instances, more powerful engines. They will have turbochargers. And there will be three engine manufacturers in the series. The level of competition and the performance of the cars will certainly be heightened.
"We're going from a V8 to a V6. We're going from 630 horsepower up to anywhere from 550 to 750," said Randy Bernard, the chief executive officer of the IndyCar Series. "We're going to have direct injection turbocharged. We have a lot of exciting things happening."
As exciting as the IndyCar Series races were at Auto Club Speedway, they didn't draw well, especially after the split that created the Indy Racing League and two open-wheel racing series in America. Attendance dropped considerably in the final years of open-wheel racing at Fontana. Now that the series is unified again, perhaps it will create a strong fan base.
"When the split happened with open-wheel racing, there were fans that were disappointed about what was going on in the industry," Zucker said. "Some of them showed that disappointment by not attending events. Now that the series is so cohesive, has so much momentum behind it, with all the changes that Randy made in the past year, the excitement he's bringing to the sport, I think the timing is just absolutely right."
Zucker also pointed out that California will be the only state that will have a street course (Grand Prix of Long Beach), a road course (Infineon Raceway) and an oval (Auto Club Speedway). That might hinder attendance. The good news for Auto Club Speedway is that the race is scheduled for Sept. 12. The Grand Prix of Long Beach is run in April. The race at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma is in Northern California, far enough away to create a separate collection of fans. Zucker has time to build a healthy fan base for the return of the IndyCar Series to Fontana.
"We're prepared to aggressively promote it with more than a year to be able to do that," Zucker said. "By bringing back a night event, we feel that will even enhance it more for fans. So we fully expect to have a big crowd."
Tim Haddock is a contributor to ESPNLosAngeles.com and the author of the Haddock in the Paddock auto racing blog. Follow him on Twitter @thaddock.