Probably my second-favorite race on the current IndyCar schedule takes place tomorrow night at Texas Motor Speedway. Apparently, I’m not the only one that feels that way because the crowd for the Firestone 550 is usually the second largest crowd on the schedule outside of the Indianapolis 500.
There have been many close and dramatic finishes at Texas. Who can forget the 2002 race when Jeff Ward nipped Al Unser, Jr. at the line? There has been controversy. One of the most memorable moments in the days of the early IRL took place just outside of Victory Lane at Texas in 1997. Billy Boat was celebrating what he thought was a victory while driving for AJ Foyt. Arie Luyendyk felt that he was the rightful winner and that USAC had botched the timing and scoring. He voiced his displeasure at race officials just outside Victory Lane. Unfortunately, Foyt took exception to the Dutchman’s pleas and slapped him from behind, knocking him over a couple of bushes. Luyendyk was ultimately proven right, but to this day – Foyt has not given back the trophy. The debacle was the end of USAC officiating at IRL events. From that point on, the IRL/IndyCar has been officiating their own events.
Texas has also been the sight of some terrible accidents. Davey Hamilton had a terrible crash coming out of Turn Two in 2001, he was caught up in the catch fencing and then slammed into the outside wall. His injuries were so severe that doctors considered amputation of his legs. He spent a year in a wheelchair and endured twenty-one surgeries on his legs, feet and ankles, but eventually drove again. He returned to the cockpit at the 2007 Indianapolis 500, where he finished ninth. Altogether, he has driven in eight races since his comeback –the last of which was in Texas in 2011.
Kenny Bräck also suffered life-threatening injuries from a horrifying crash at Texas in the last race of the 2003 season. After much rehab, Bräck returned to the cockpit one last time to sub for the injured Buddy Rice in the 2005 Indianapolis 500. He was the fastest qualifier in the race, but was not a first day qualifier and had to start twenty-third. Mechanical issues made him an early out and he finished twenty-sixth. He never drove an IndyCar again.
In all honesty, this race has also produced a snoozer or two. The 2009 race comes to mind. It was a boring parade, led mostly by Ryan Briscoe. But on the last stop, his teammate Helio Castroneves came out ahead of Briscoe and that was that. But that race was not the norm. Usually, IndyCar racing at Texas Motor Speedway is wide open.
It appears tomorrow night’s race will be no exception. This entire season has been wide open. After seven races, I don’t think anyone in their right mind would have said that Dale Coyne Racing, AJ Foyt Enterprises, KV Racing Technology and Sam Schmidt Motorsports would all have victories; while the so-called “power teams” of Penske and Ganassi would be winless. In fact, neither team has even sniffed a podium finish since both teams were represented on the podium at Barber back on April 7th. You know something is going to give with one or both of these teams. Will it finally be at Texas?
Actually, Texas could very well be the place where these teams break out. This is a track where the engineer plays a huge part in deciding how fast a driver goes. Both teams have drivers that have won here in the past, with excellent engineering staffs and experienced crew members. That could go a long way in deciding who wins Saturday night.
This week’s driver at Panther Racing is Oriol Servia, who is my personal favorite to land in that seat full-time. He lost his ride at Dreyer & Reinbold through no fault of his own. His track record speaks for itself and he doesn’t need to prove his worthiness to anyone. With the relationship between Panther and DRR, having Servia on the team should be a seamless fit.
Last year, it looked as if this race was Graham Rahal’s race to lose. It was and he did. While cruising to an apparent victory, he brushed the wall in the late stages just hard enough that he had to back off to bring it home. Justin Wilson passed him for the victory.
So that makes the defending winner of this race Justin Wilson and Dale Coyne Racing, who has a pretty stout engineering staff of their own. Wilson has been very quick as of late. He finished third in Saturday’s race at Detroit, while his teammate, Mike Conway, won on Saturday and finished third on Sunday. Wilson was running well when he got caught up in the ten-car pileup on Sunday. Since Conway no longer runs ovals, Wilson will have another teammate at Texas – Pippa Mann. Pippa drove for the team at Indianapolis and ran well before brushing the Turn Four wall and ending her day early. She takes over the No.18 car driven by Conway last week and Ana Beatriz for the early part of the season. This is an excellent opportunity for Pippa to shine and show what she can do.
Speaking of an opportunity to shine – the entire IndyCar Series has an opportunity this weekend. For the first time ever, the series is live on a network in prime time. Former CEO Randy Bernard staged a coup in getting this race on ABC in prime time on Saturday night. The ratings for the Indianapolis 500 and the Detroit Duels were abysmal. Hopefully, going in prime time will give the ratings a boost – especially if the series puts on its usual good show at Texas.
With all of the parity and great showing from the smaller teams, picking a winner at Texas is nothing more than a guess. Therefore, assuming that Penske and Ganassi continue their struggles – I’m going to pick one of the small to medium size teams that hasn’t won yet. My pick is Oriol Servia and Panther Racing. Servia is over due and Panther will pick up their first win since Tomas Scheckter won for them at Texas in 2005.