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Fontana crash brings back memories of Las Vegas tragedy

It’s going on four years since a pack of Indy-style racecars hightailed at close quarters into Turns 1 and 2 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and then something happened, and four cars went flying.

The one with Dan Wheldon, the popular two-time Indianapolis 500 champion, on board clouted the debris fence in front of the O’Reilly automotive and Kobalt signs at a blunt angle.

Wheldon was killed instantly.

There never will be another race for Indy-style racecars at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, said the men and women who drive them, because the banking of the track leads to pack-style racing, and pack-style racing can get a guy or Pippa Mann killed.

And sure enough, though Chris Powell, the LVMS landlord, has said he would rent out the track again to the Indy-style racecars and drivers, that was pretty much the last time you heard “Las Vegas” and “pack racing” uttered in the same sentence.

Until Saturday, when the Indy cars and drivers raced 225 miles up Interstate 15 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.

It was a spectacular race.

It produced 80 lead changes, an all-time record. It couldn’t have been any more thrilling, unless the car that won tumbled across the finish line upside down, on fire.

Which almost happened.

As the final lap started, a couple of the cars touched wheels again. Only this time, Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2014 Indy winner, got sideways and bumped into the car driven by Ryan Briscoe, whose wife, Nicole, works the pregame show on ESPN baseball telecasts.

Briscoe, who had led a bunch of laps and was racing for the win, had nowhere to go — because the cars were racing in a pack. They looked like a bunch of 215 mph grapes when his got squashed.

Briscoe’s car flipped and flew into the infield grass. It came down hard, like a lawn dart at a Fourth of July picnic, when lawn darts were legal. Racecar parts flew everywhere.

The gold and black car came to rest with the shiny side up. Its driver put two thumbs up.

Ryan Briscoe was driving a car owned by Henderson’s Sam Schmidt. So was Dan Wheldon, when he died.

Briscoe was pinch hitting for Schmidt’s top driver, James Hinchcliffe, who almost died in the run-up to this year’s Indy 500 when he crashed and a suspension piece pierced his thigh.

The Canadian lead foot lost a tremendous amount of blood.

Hinchcliffe was not racing in a pack when he crashed. Auto racing at those speeds is dangerous, even when one is skilled and driving by his lonesome.

But racing in a pack again, after everybody said they wouldn’t do it? That’s lunacy. That’s tempting the auto racing gods, and the auto racing gods are fickle gods.

The cars came out with new aerodynamic body pieces this year, and the teams haven’t quite figured out the setup. This is why cars were crashing and flying backward through the air at Indy, and why adjustments were made before the race at Texas. And then the race was sort of humdrum — the Chevrolet cars still were more dominant than the Honda cars.

So perhaps because Honda’s contract is coming due and the series could not afford to lose such a major contributor, it was decided to put lots of road-hugging downforce on the cars before the race at Fontana.

This made the Honda cars more competitive — a Honda driven by Graham Rahal held on for the win; it was the first victory for Rahal, a popular second generation driver, in six years.

It made for thrilling racing if you were watching, and white knuckles and frayed nerves, if you were driving.

After Ryan Briscoe’s car became a lawn dart at the start-finish line, a lot of drivers started talking again about their pal Dan Wheldon and the horror of Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The undertone was ominous.

“Someone is going to die,” said Will Power, the reigning series champion who was battling for the win before being eliminated in the next-to-last crash at Fontana.

“This is the Las Vegas situation all over again, but 500 miles,” Power told USA Today Sports. “Someone or multiple people need to lose their jobs over this, because this is an absolute disgrace.”

Tony Kanaan, who finished second, said it was crazy to be racing in a pack like that, especially when only a few thousand people turned out. When a reporter asked the 2013 Indy 500 winner if he was being disingenuous, Kanaan went off like a blown Offenhauser.

“Are you risking your life out there? You’re not. You’re sitting in a chair and writing about it.

“So if you feel this way and you lose your best friend (Dan Wheldon), you might say something like that. I have an opinion, and this is my opinion, so I hope you respect that,” Kanaan said during the postrace news conference.

Then he slammed down the microphone.

Some of the drivers, even one or two who crashed — the really bold ones — were less outspoken. Many took to social media to comment on the thrills and spills. Even NASCAR drivers, who have their own form of pack racing at the big tracks, caused by horsepower-restricting carburetor restrictor plates, were captivated.

“Fact … most drivers don’t like plate racing because it’s dangerous,” wrote Clint Bowyer on his Twitter account, adding that the IndyCar drivers sure weren’t “pussyfooting” around the Fontana oval. “Fact … fans love it.”

This, from NASCAR young lion Joey Logano: “This @Indycar race is wild and entertaining. These guys are nuts.”

Jeff Burton was more measured and diplomatic: “The great debate will go forever. Exciting to watch vs. ‘reasonable’ risk to the drivers. Where is the line?”

As Tony Kanaan pointed out, I’m just one who is sitting here and writing about it.

It was a fantastic race.

It was a frightening race.

There is no other way to put it.

Was the risk worth the reward? Probably depends on which side of the debris fence you were on.

We’ll let another Twitter post serve as the last word this time:

“Glad to see that both @Ryan_Briscoe &@RyanHunterReay are ok. Scary stuff! #Indycar.”

Holly Wheldon posted that. She was Dan Wheldon’s sister.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

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