Texas Preview

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This Saturday, the Verizon IndyCar series returns to Texas Motor Speedway – a track that is tied with Milwaukee as my second favorite oval behind the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That’s nothing against the remaining three on the schedule – Iowa, Pocono and Fontana. All six have their own favorable characteristics and can offer great racing; but those two have a slight edge for different reasons. Milwaukee has its history and Texas has sheer speed.

Yes Fontana, Pocono and Indianapolis all feature higher speeds than Texas – but those tracks are all two miles long or longer. Texas is confined to a very tight 1.5 mile oval and comes across on television as extremely fast.

Of course, I offer these opinions like I’ve been to all of these tracks. I haven’t. The only two ovals on the current Verizon IndyCar Series schedule that I’ve been to in person are Indianapolis and Fontana; although I want to go to each of them at some point. I did attend the ill-fated IndyCar race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1999; which is pretty much of a clone of Texas. Before the race was halted due to spectator fatalities in the stands – even those old IRL cars looked fast.

The DW-12 has raced at Texas twice. The 2012 race was decent, but last year’s race, shown in prime time on ABC, was a dud. For good reason, there has been an emphasis put on getting away from the pack racing we used to see there. Although the pack racing was edge-of-your-seat excitement; the potential consequences of something going wrong were drastic. The risks were just too great, as we saw in Las Vegas in 2011.

The trade-off for safety has been races that aren’t quite as riveting as they were say, ten years ago. I used to stand up to watch this race in my den. I paced back and forth watching the cars dice in and out with each other, while the entire pack made its way around the track, lap after lap, like a swarm of bees. While it was exciting, I lived in fear that something bad was going to happen to someone. A few times it did. Davey Hamilton and Kenny Bräck both had their driving careers effectively ended at Texas Motor Speedway. Both drivers eventually would return to the cockpit sporadically, but only once more for Bräck.

But last year, the theory is they changed the aerodynamics too much in order to get away from pack racing. Helio Castroneves won a snoozer that was essentially a single-file parade. In all honesty, I can’t remember a single highlight from the race – except it was boring. Rumor has it that there will be more flexibility in the aero-package this year to create better racing. Let’s hope so.

After all of the exciting races held there over the years, it’s hard to believe I’m saying this – but this race needs a shot in the arm. The last edge-of-your-seat race held there was in 2008, when Scott Dixon won a nail-biter just two weeks after winning the Indianapolis 500 on his way to winning the championship. Since then, aero-tweaks in the name of safety have toned down the excitement level in recent years. The worst tweak was done in 2011, when they split the normal distance into two separate races in one night. Adding even more insult was the method used to determine the starting grid for the second race – a cheesy random draw complete with spinning tires on a stage. Fortunately, that experiment was abandoned after one year.

In recent year’s, Texas Motor Speedway has taken on the look of Roger Penske’s playground. Of the last nine IndyCar races run there, Team Penske has won six of them – including last year. Two of the others were won by Ganassi cars and one by Justin Wilson for Dale Coyne.

Right now, Chip Ganassi Racing is struggling to find its way. Last year they faced similar struggles, but righted the ship at Pocono and Scott Dixon fought his way to the championship. This year, they find themselves in an even tougher situation. There is an additional car, two new drivers and a swap from Honda to Chevrolet. Scott Dixon is the highest ranked Ganassi driver at eighth, 142 points out of first. If they have any hopes of another championship run for Scott Dixon, it needs to start tomorrow night.

After a disastrous weekend at Detroit, Ryan Hunter-Reay needs to bounce back for his confidence, if nothing else. He plummeted from first to third in points last weekend. I think he and the rest of his Andretti Autosport teammates are in for a much better weekend at Texas.

Up until last year’s season finale at Fontana, Will Power could only claim the second half-race at Texas in 2011 as his only oval victory. They still don’t appear to be his strong suit, but I think he’ll do well enough to hold on to his points lead. I’m not going out on a limb much at all for my pick for this weekend. He has won this race four times already and his team has a lot of momentum after a near miss at Indianapolis and a win at Detroit. Of course, I’m talking about Helio Castroneves – who will win his fifth Texas race overall and his second in a row.

And for those that think I’m blinded by my Penske bias – that is not the case. I’m simply going with who has the hot hand right now. Remember – I picked Scott Dixon to win the championship last season, despite my admitted partiality to Team Penske. We’ll see.

George Phillips

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8 Responses to “Texas Preview”

  1. Phil Kaiser Says:

    George, did you make a typo when you said “Of the last nine IndyCar races run there, Team Penske has won nine of them – including last year. Two of the others were won by Ganassi cars and one by Justin Wilson for Dale Coyne.”

    Did you mean “Team Penske has won six of them…?”

    Just trying to help, I have a background in editing….

    Phil in Indianapolis

  2. I htnk Castroneves has a real shot to win. But the Andretti drivers have been doing very well too. And Ed Carpenter probably has a little bit of motivation to do well this weekend.

    This has the makings of a very good race if they can finally hit that balance of competitiveness and safety they seem to be striving so hard to find.

  3. Appreciate the effort here, George. Every race previewed, every race Random Thoughted. The changes to this race since Las Vegas 2011 have been interesting, and not always in a good way, as you noted. We’ll see what the 2014 edition is. Attendance at this race has already dived, I don’t think we can afford another snoozer.

  4. Tony Dinelli Says:

    My dad and I were at the race when Kenny Bräck hit the catch fence and it was horrific. They had a great promotion for low level seats this year(4 tickets, 4 hot dogs, 4 sodas for $79). A deal I couldn’t pass up to bring a couple 11 year old cousins, dad and brother to the track. Hope we see more position changing than last year. I saw that they tweaked the aero options for this race.

  5. I HATE what Indycar has done to the racing here. They completely neutered it. In the name of safety of course. And I love the classy way drivers and some journalists talk about this place. No criticism what so ever of less than exciting street races, but they’ll toss Texas under the buss. I got into Indycar for close, wheel to wheel action. Right now only Indy and Fontana offer up anything close to that. And while Chicagoland and Kentucky were my favorite ovals, if Texas can at least deliver racing similar to what we’ve seen at Indy and Fontana, and perhaps give us another super close finish, I’ll be satisfied. Another 2012/2013 Texas race though, that is unacceptable. Those races were basically NASCAR races. Actually, that is an insult to NASCAR, who’s races this year outside of the last two have actually been way better than in years past, and were better than the last two Indcyar Texas races.

  6. Yannick Says:

    I think it’s nice for the spectators that the Verizon IndyCar Series adjusts the aero package for ovals such as TMS at Fort Worth, Tx, every year. This way, teams cannot just run the event with the setup from last year but have to adjust their setups instead. This enables competitors to catch up, resulting in a greater variety of results from year to year.

    I have only ever watched one race from TMS live, because for me, the race starts at 3:00 a.m. due to conflicting time zones. That one was post-unification but still with the old car. Danica Patrick was very racy in that event and fought hard and clean for a 2nd place result on merit in the Green car of Andretti Autosport. This may well have been her best race in the series. Although I had never been a fan before, she certainly won me over with that performance. However, I need my sleep so I’m not going to watch this one again.

    Count me among those who is happy when this race is run and everybody is OK. I remember when the g-forces of the place caused ChampCar drivers to almost faint. Yet, TMS is a place with a lot of history for IndyCar and thus fully deserves to be a regular on the calendar. I just wish the series would add one more day of practise to the proceedings as they are now.

    Who will win it? I haven’t got a clue. Helio Castroneves’ performance last year was so dominant, he surely is amongst the contenders. But my guess is that Team Penske will have some strong competition from oval specialists in good rides, such as TK for Ganassi, Marco Andretti and Ed Carpenter.
    I wouldn’t rule out Graham Rahal either because he was so close to winning it 2 years ago. And if downforce levels are similar to that year when road racer Justin Wilson won it, don’t rule out the road racers either.
    As I said, I don’t have a clue who will win it.

  7. Carp was listed at 12-1. I had a better night than California Chrome fans.

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