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Column: Fans love the daredevil racing, but IndyCar walking fine line with driver danger

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NASCAR returns this week to Daytona International Speedway, where 43 drivers are likely to race bumper to bumper for 400 white-knuckle miles.

Very few of them will enjoy the race. Fans will most likely love every moment.

IndyCar finds itself in the same situation following one of its most breathtaking races in recent memory.

The open-wheel series on Saturday staged a sensational 500-miler that featured an IndyCar-record 80 lead changes as drivers made moves that bordered on the absurd. Cars slid into gaps that put drivers five-wide across the track at times. Auto Club Speedway found itself hosting a race that rivaled NASCAR's version of Daytona or Talladega.

Fans watching on television — and that's where they were watching because there couldn't have been much more than 5,000 people in the stands in Fontana, California — used social media to marvel at what they were watching.

The drivers, though, were less than pleased with the product.

Most of IndyCar's top stars lambasted the racing and series officials for putting together a rules package that created pack racing. The complaints were loud and came from reigning series champion Will Power and Indianapolis 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya, who warned a day earlier that the conditions were ripe for dangerous racing.

Something to consider: Montoya is widely considered to be fearless. He has touched wheels with Michael Andretti at 230 mph racing for a win, shoved his car inside of Michael Schumacher's when there was no room and once crashed into a jet dryer, igniting a massive fireball and yet walking away. When that guy says the racing is inching toward too dangerous, he is probably correct.

There is no simple fix for IndyCar, which seemingly only draws eyeballs anymore during times of crisis.

The series was square in the spotlight a month ago after three cars went airborne during preparation for the Indianapolis 500. A fourth accident nearly killed driver James Hinchcliffe, who didn't go airborne but was saved from bleeding to death after a broken part pierced his thigh.

It created a buildup for the Indy 500 that drew the casual spectator to the television to see if cars really would fly during "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing." It's no coincidence that the Indy 500 drew a higher television rating than NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 for the first time in 10 years.

PHOTO: Takuma Sato (14) goes airborne after colliding with Will Power, top right, during the closing laps Saturday June 27, 2015 during the IndyCar auto race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. (AP Photo/Will Lester)
Takuma Sato (14) goes airborne after colliding with Will Power, top right, during the closing laps Saturday June 27, 2015 during the IndyCar auto race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. (AP Photo/Will Lester)

Those who watched did not see cars fly through the air, but were treated to an intense and competitive race.

The problem? IndyCar hasn't figured out how to sustain any momentum and the four races that followed Indy failed to produce the same entertainment. Particularly disheartening was the June 6 snoozefest at Texas, where the action on the oval lacked any of the excitement fans had seen just two weeks earlier.

There doesn't seem to be much middle ground when it comes to IndyCar and oval track racing, and ovals were the bread and butter of this series when it was created in 1994. Indy, Texas and Fontana could not have been more different this year, and series officials can't seem to figure out how to find a rules package that works for every oval.

The result on Saturday was loved by the fans and hated by the drivers — many of them present at the 2011 season finale when Dan Wheldon was killed in a horrific accident just minutes after the start.

Wheldon's death has left a deep scar on the series and made his close friends wary of pack racing. What infuriates them even more is that they warned IndyCar prior to that Las Vegas race that conditions were too dangerous and felt they were ignored.

So when they spoke out Saturday, sure, some of it was emotional. It immediately led to sniping — from fans who felt the drivers were being whiney and even from fellow driver Ed Carpenter, who suggested on Twitter that his peers who don't like close racing should retire.

The Las Vegas memories have created two very distinct sides in this debate.

Team owner Chip Ganassi had four cars finish in the top eight Saturday and didn't understand what all the fuss was about. He also stressed that the drivers are in control of their actions on the track.

"Nobody wants to see anyone get hurt — (but) you can't touch wheels with open-wheel cars and for some reason these drivers think you can do that these days," he said. "I think somebody needs to sit the drivers down and tell them they've got to stop chopping other guys and stop touching wheels and stop racing every lap like it's the last lap."

Ganassi also downplayed the pack racing, calling the climate Saturday "a pseudo pack," while noting that the same drivers seem to crash at every oval race.

"Some of the drivers don't want a pack," he said. "I think it's pretty obvious, the older guys don't want a pack and the younger guys don't really care."

True, there are hundreds of young racers around the world who would eagerly jump into an Indy car and not think twice about the style of racing. Even though the attendance did not show it, the attention paid to Saturday's race proved that's what fans want to watch.

It's never going to be safe, racing just isn't that way. But finding a balance between daredevil racing and over-the-top danger is a challenge IndyCar must unravel.

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