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Drivers disagree on tight racing at Fontana

Graham Rahal held on to give Honda a victory Saturday in the MAVTV 500. Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

FONTANA, Calif. -- A lot of folks no doubt believe Saturday's MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway was one of the greatest IndyCar races of all time.

It featured close, pack-like racing almost from start to finish, a Verizon IndyCar Series record 80 lead changes and a popular winner in Graham Rahal.

So why is everybody so upset?

Michael Andretti was unhappy Rahal's non-penalty possibly kept his son, third-place finisher Marco Andretti, out of Victory Lane. Team Penske was unhappy a pack race broke out, despite warning IndyCar that was exactly what was going to happen.

Ed Carpenter was upset with some of his fellow drivers for criticizing IndyCar after an exciting race, while Tony Kanaan went off in the postrace press conference on a reporter who called him disingenuous after Kanaan called pack racing "stupid" when it takes place in front of 5,000 fans instead of 100,000.

In short, what could and should have been a great day for the IndyCar Series ended up being another all-around gripefest. Although some drivers were pointing the finger at their colleagues for silly driving, most of the vitriol was directed at IndyCar for once again sending 23 drivers out as human test pilots with what many of them deemed an unacceptably dangerous aerodynamic setup on the car.

One after another, they kept referring to the IndyCar Series' last true pack race, the one in October 2011 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that they started but never finished because champion driver Dan Wheldon was killed in a violent accident after just a handful of laps.

Will Power gave an emotional and powerful interview on the NBC Sports Network broadcast. A few minutes later, he told me what he really thinks.

"You've been around racing a long time, so you know what real racing is," he said. "And that ain't real racing, is it? And it doesn't require talent.

"[Juan Pablo] Montoya, Simon [Pagenaud] and myself, we told them at the beginning of the weekend that this would be a pack race, we promise you. And they said, 'No way.' They did not want to listen, and now this."

Power was naturally upset because he had just crashed out of a race he thought he was in a position to win. Instead, his car got together with another driven by Takuma Sato, which sent both hard into the SAFER Barrier.

I asked Power what it would take for IndyCar to listen.

"Someone to die," he said. "That's what happened last time. Poor old Dan lost his life. And they don't react until someone is seriously injured or in the catch fence."

So while Rahal and his Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing teammates were celebrating Graham's long-awaited second IndyCar Series race win, most of the rest of the paddock was focused on the specter of pack racing. It was a hallmark of the early days of the Indy Racing League, and the debate over whether it is good or bad for the sport has raged for nearly 20 years.

"That was not good," observed team owner Michael Andretti, who ranks No. 3 on the all-time list of IndyCar winners. "It was back to the old vintage IRL days.

"I'm sure it's exciting in the stands or on TV, but for us, as team owners or drivers, it's no fun at all."

There's no denying the early IRL pack races -- or semi-pack races such as what took place Saturday at Fontana -- are exciting to watch from the stands or on television.

But those who have followed IndyCar racing for decades understand how dangerous it is for open-wheel cars -- or even semi-enclosed wheel hybrid sports cars, as Indy cars have become -- to run so close together lap after lap.

It's not surprising that many of the younger drivers in Saturday's race were practically bursting with enthusiasm in the aftermath. But the sport's elder statesmen were virtually shaking with anger.

Kanaan, who finished second for Chip Ganassi Racing, suggested the risks he was forced to take to contend for the win at Fontana might be more justifiable in front of a larger audience than the paltry crowd at Auto Club Speedway.

"In the middle of the race, I thought, 'Man, the fans must be loving it, so hopefully we can pack this place when we come back if we're going to keep racing like this,'" Kanaan said. "But for us, people have to understand how stressful it is. Obviously, we get paid, and we are who we are because we can do this, but we can't forget that we lost ‑‑ I lost my best friend [Wheldon] in exactly the same way in 2011.

"I understand what the fans want, and if you say we're going to have 100,000 people here and this is what we're going to do, I agree with you that we need to put it out there," he added. "To have 5,000 people out there and do this, it's stupid."

What happened? IndyCar is basically (pardon the pun) winging it this year with the new aero kits produced by Chevrolet and Honda for the basic Dallara chassis. At Indianapolis, the Chevrolet cars showed a tendency to take flight when they spun and travelled backward at high speeds, but modifications made for a clean and exciting race.

At Texas Motor Speedway, a different aero spec was used to try to strike a balance between pack racing and recent races in which the combination of low downforce and high tire degradation led to boring, single-file races. Scott Dixon won by more than seven seconds two weeks ago at Texas, which led, naturally, to complaints about the quality of racing.

IndyCar changed the spec to add downforce for Fontana, but it appears they went too far. The cars ran close together, often in a pack, and several accidents -- particularly the one involving Ryan Briscoe that caused the race to be red-flagged near the end -- thankfully did not result in injury.

"It's hard because we don't test," Dixon said. "We have new packages, and it's kind of up in the air. Today, they definitely buggered it up.

"Texas probably kind of helped this race become what it was because everybody knew that putting on more downforce was going to help the situation," he continued. "Obviously, it created a bit of a pack race here. You don't want to see these crashes or cars touching going side to side down straights. But we're just constrained into these tight spaces, sometimes six and seven wide, and that's not what we should be doing."

Defending Fontana winner Ed Carpenter stopped short of calling Saturday's action pack racing, but he did call out his fellow drivers for their negativity after what he saw as a very good race.

"I don't totally consider that a pack race, and I think we need to have racing like that," Carpenter said. "I do think a lot of guys were driving pretty crazy today. We haven't had a race like that in awhile, and guys were driving crazy.

"This is a great sport, and this was a great race," he added. "The fans were screaming after the race. So don't get out of the car and slam the sport. If you don't want to do it, go do something else. I love IndyCar, and I want to do it, no matter what type of racing it is. There's plenty of other guys who would give an arm to be out there in a car."

Forgotten by most in the afterglow of Rahal's breakthrough victory was how close he came to having his race ruined by a penalty. He was waved out of his pit with the fuel hose still attached two-thirds of the way through the race, and while IndyCar said the incident will be investigated, no penalty was issued at the time for what was undoubtedly a pit-lane safety violation.

"Obviously, that would have killed us," Rahal said. "We were lucky on that one."

Rahal also garnered a warning for blocking during the race, but that was long before he stopped what Marco Andretti thought could have been a race-winning pass.

That's what had Andretti Autosport team owner Michael Andretti fuming.

"I've got an issue with [the fuel hose situation], and I also have an issue with the fact that when Marco was coming up on him at 1,000 mph, he just put Marco down below the line," Michael Andretti said. "They put out a bulletin this morning that said you cannot switch lanes and impede another driver. It's clear he knew Marco was coming, and that's why he did it. Otherwise, Marco wins the race."

Andretti was one of several team principals lined up at the IndyCar trailer to air a grievance after the race. Did he expect series officials to listen?

"No," he replied with a grin. "But I gotta put my two cents in."

Only five races and eight weeks remain, but it promises to be a long summer for IndyCar officials, one that might feel longer than the six-month offseason set to follow.

Questions are already being raised about whether IndyCar will be able to define a safe and competitive aero setup for the remaining oval races at the Milwaukee Mile, Iowa Speedway and Pocono Raceway.

"I'm not a big fan of that racing by any stretch, but we don't get to decide," said Sebastien Bourdais, a four-time IndyCar champion. "We haven't been consulted or anything, and the series has trapped itself because of the way the aero kits are. It could very well be the same at Iowa because the amount of downforce we can run at Iowa is crazy. The speedway and superspeedway kits definitely have some issues."

Perhaps a six-month offseason, criticized so often because it takes the series out of the spotlight for such a long time, might be exactly what the IndyCar Series needs to regroup.