Random Thoughts On Texas
The Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway was not the edge-of-your seat excitement that we came to know in the last decade. I’ve never really known what to call the last decade – the 2000’s? The zero’s? The naught’s? Anyway – ten years ago, IndyCar races at Texas Motor Speedway were literally riveting. As the pack swarmed around the track at 220 mph, you couldn’t look away – although sometimes we should have. Personally, I liked that excitement. It’s part of what I think allured me to this form of auto-racing.
Some say watching something knowing that a driver can lose his or her life is morbid. I disagree. It is witnessing drivers practice their craft at a high level, despite the dire consequences if something goes wrong. I don’t want to see drivers lose their life, become seriously injured or even tear up equipment. I enjoy seeing close racing, where everyone comes through cleanly.
While I loved those races at Texas of the past decade, I also enjoyed Saturday night’s race every bit as much. Both styles were completely different, but does that mean that I have to choose?
I was surprised at the complaining I saw on Twitter during and after Saturday night’s Verizon IndyCar Series race at Texas Motor Speedway. I saw words like “boring”, “parade”, “procession” and “snoozer” being used to describe the Firestone 600 – which was won (in exciting fashion, I might add) by Ed Carpenter.
This was anything but a parade. Marco Andretti proved immediately that you can pass at Texas in the current downforce configuration. Of course, he also followed family tradition by charging towards the front just before seeing his car go up in flames in the process.
The operative phrase of the night was “tire degradation”. But all the teams knew before the race that that would be an issue. It’s not as if halfway through the race it dawned on everyone that tires were going away quicker than their fuel was. It simply became a part of the strategy that was used.
After the Detroit double-headers and Saturday night’s race, I’ve read fans decrying the use of too much strategy in IndyCar. They are all saying that this is what IndyCar has suddenly become. I’ve got news for you – it’s always been this way. The drivers who can best take care of their equipment are those that are rewarded at the end of most races and at the end of most seasons.
In his day, there was no one easier on their equipment than Al Unser. He managed his tires, his brakes and his fuel better than almost anyone on the track. Consequently, he won four Indianapolis 500’s and three championship seasons. In As a Matter of Fact, I AM Parnelli Jones, Parnelli recounts the days of the “Super Team”. Al Unser’s car never had a loose bolt or any wear and tear after a race. It always looked like it was ready for the next race. Conversely, the car of his teammate, Mario Andretti, always had parts hanging off of it and looked like it was ready for the junk pile. Unser had the well-earned reputation for taking care of his equipment. Mario had the opposite reputation.
Later on, Rick Mears was known for saving his car to the very end. In the 1991 Indianapolis 500, Michael Andretti passed Rick Mears for the lead on the outside of Turn One late in the race. But out of nowhere on the following lap, Mears passed Michael in an almost identical move to re-take the lead he never relinquished. Michael later said he had no idea where Rick came up with that speed, because he had not had it all day. What Michael didn’t realize was that Mears always had the speed, he just had not shown it until that point. In his day, Mears was always known for saving his equipment. Like Unser, he also won the Indianapolis 500 four times and had three CART championships.
Saturday night, those that consistently ran up front were those that managed their tires the best. Sometimes, it comes down to who can manage their fuel mileage. Sometimes, it boils down to which driver can make their car work best through certain turns. There are many moving parts to winning a race, other than sheer speed. If you don’t want strategy and tactics to be part of your racing, I suggest you go watch NHRA, where speed is all that matters – or USAC Sprints where yellow flag laps don’t count. At the top levels, be it NASCAR, Formula One or IndyCar, strategy has always been and will continue to be part of the race.
TV Coverage: Brian Till did a more than adequate job filling in for Leigh Diffey. You know someone is doing a good job announcing, when you really don’t notice them. Generally, when you take note of something an announcer is doing or saying – it is for the wrong reasons.
Even though the race ended within the three-hour time window, I appreciated the fact that NBCSN extended their coverage by an additional fifteen minutes to get in as many post-race interviews as they could.
Like most, I watched NBC’s coverage of the Belmont Stakes and followed their post-race coverage to NBCSN. When the Belmont coverage ended, I was a little disappointed that they steered viewers back to the main channel for the Stanley Cup Finals instead of mentioning the IndyCar race that would be shown on the very channel viewers were watching. I understand that the Stanley Cup Finals garners much higher ratings than an IndyCar race, but I would think the race would warrant a mention throughout the Belmont coverage.
I’m still a little surprised that Paul Tracy continues to mispronounce the first name of Helio Castroneves. A few times he got it right, making me think that he’s been coached on it. But as the night wore on, it evolved first to HAY-le-o and then eventually back to what he usually calls him – HEE-le-o. I can’t help but think he knows better. I think this still stems from the sour grapes of Castroneves being declared the winner of the 2002 Indianapolis 500 over Tracy. On another note – I did like PT’s reference to Mikhail Aleshin as “the crazy Russian”.
Personally and selfishly, I was thankful that Saturday night’s race was on a cable channel. In the Nashville area, we had the threat of severe weather throughout the night. We never got more than rain and some thunder, but all of the network channels had scrolls and radar insets embedded into their screens. I know that some people need to be alerted to the potential to severe weather, but selfishly – I was glad our screen was free of such distractions.
Rahal Rebound: It’s rare that a driver should celebrate finishing twelfth, but given the way his weekend had gone and his race started – Graham Rahal should be very proud of himself for his twelfth-place finish. After a disastrous Month of May and a very disappointing start to his season, Rahal looked like he may be having his worst weekend yet.
Rahal qualified twenty-first in a twenty-two car field. The only driver he out-qualified was Colombian rookie Carlos Huertas. His two-lap average speed was more than five miles-per-hour slower than pole-sitter Will Power and almost a full mile-per-hour slower than the car just ahead of him, driven by rookie Jack Hawksworth. Things were not looking good for the race.
Even when the race started, the first car lapped by Power was that of Rahal, on Lap 40. The line he was taking on the track indicated that he had a very poor handling car underneath him. But give the young American driving the National Guard car some credit. He stayed with it. He and his team made adjustments to make the car better and better. The result was a much more respectable twelfth-place finish – which was certainly better than I would have predicted just after the start of the race. Good job by Rahal and his team.
Ganassi Rebound: After a disappointing Month of May and an equally disappointing weekend in Detroit, Chip Ganassi Racing silenced some critics with a strong performance in Texas. Ganassi cars led both practices and had a decent showing in qualifying. Other than Carpenter and Power, I thought Tony Kanaan had the strongest car in the race Saturday night. A replaced steering wheel and a decision to stay out during the last yellow cost them a few track positions in the end – but Kanaan has to feel better about the direction of his new team, which has really struggled in the first part of the season.
Although he may have had one of the strongest cars in the field, Tony Kanaan was also driving one of the ugliest. The all-charcoal gray was not a good look – especially at night. While most cars were sparkling under the lights in living color, Kanaan’s car gave the impression the telecast had switched to black & white. Whoever came up with that livery needs to stick with their day job.
Power Rebound: Shortly after Ed Carpenter unexpectedly shot past Will Power for the lead, the two of them pitted at the same time. While Carpenter eased into his pit box, Power was struggling to slow down before entering the pits. He failed. As a result, Will Power was issued a drive-through penalty for speeding on pit-lane. Everyone, including myself, figured that Power’s night had effectively ended after such a brilliant and dominating drive.
This was no controversy. Power had been caught fair and square. It was a defenseless mistake by Power. The look on the face of Tim Cindric said it all. I would hate to be on the wrong end of that death-stare of Tim Cindric. He learned it from the best – Roger Penske. You could sense that Cindric was witnessing another Will Power championship slipping away due to another careless Power mistake. Power dropped to sixth – the last car on the lead lap.
But fate smiled on Cindric and Power. When Takuma Sato’s Honda engine caught fire, as several Honda engines did Saturday night – it brought out a caution flag with six laps to go. Clean-up didn’t take long and the race resumed with four laps remaining. In that time-frame, Cindric made a brilliant call. He brought Power in for fresh tires. He would lose no track position and would have much fresher tires than everyone else. This was going to be a wild sprint to the finish.
As it turned out, Power jumped from sixth to third in one lap. He then ran down his teammate, Juan Montoya, for second. Had there been one more lap, I think Power would have caught Carpenter for the win – but we’ll never know. One thing we do know, is that by taking fresh rubber and advancing from sixth to finishing second – Will Power assured himself an additional twelve points towards the championship. He now has a comfortable thirty-nine point lead over Helio Castroneves, who remains in second after a forgettable night where he did well to finish eighth. Those twelve points could prove pivotal down the stretch.
Andretti Woes: The post-Indianapolis 500 hangover continued for Ryan Hunter-Reay and the entire Andretti Autosport team. After a disastrous weekend in Detroit, Hunter-Reay went to Texas with thoughts of starting from scratch. The media blitz had slowed down. The weekend to forget in Detroit was just an aberration, right? Wrong.
Hunter-Reay’s engine blew on Lap 136. His evening was done, just past the half-way point – relegating him to a nineteenth-place finish. This after teammate Marco Andretti went out after just four laps. James Hinchcliffe battled an ill-handling car all night and soldiered it home to finish fourteenth. Carlos Muñoz carried the banner for the entire Andretti team, finishing a very unspectacular thirteenth, after spinning entering the pits under yellow.
I’m not sure what’s going on with Andretti Autosport, but after leading the championship leaving Indianapolis – Ryan Hunter-Reay should consider himself lucky to still be third in points. This entire team needed a wakeup call. Surely it will be answered.
Honda Woes: If I don’t know what’s going on with Andretti Autosport, I sure don’t know what’s going on with Honda. After a decent showing in qualifying on Friday, where they had five of the top-ten qualifiers – things literally blew up in the race. No less than three Honda engines caught fire during the race. Honda finished with only two cars finishing in the top-ten – placing fourth with Simon Pagenaud and seventh with his teammate, Mikhail Aleshin. Like Andretti Autosport – after winning the Indianapolis 500 in May, Honda has certainly taken their lumps.
Rookies Excell: There were four rookies in the field Saturday night. A tip of the hat goes to all of them. None seemed intimidated with the high speeds and high banks. The lowest placing rookie was Carlos Huertas of Dale Coyne Racing, who finished sixteenth after starting dead-last. Jack Hawksworth continued to impress as he finished fifteenth. Although he ran a few races last season, Carlos Muñoz is technically a rookie and had never raced at Texas. He finished thirteenth.
But the most impressive rookie of all, was the one with the least amount of oval experience. Last month, Russian driver Mikhail Aleshin drove on his first oval ever, when he finished twenty-first in the Indianapolis 500. Saturday night, he ran with the leaders all night long in only his second oval appearance. Aleshin was very impressive with a well-earned seventh-place finish.
All in All: This is shaping up to be an interesting points race. Can Will Power stay out of his own way? Will consistency earn Helio Castroneves enough points to win his first championship? Can Ryan Hunter-Reay rebound after his post-Indianapolis funk and get back into the race? Will Scott Dixon catch fire soon and take another championship? Will Juan Montoya creep his way into contention? Right now, there are more questions than answers, which makes this so compelling.
After going practically non-stop since the start of the season, the teams, drivers and series officials are heading into a much-needed two-weekend break, before reuming action with the double-header in Houston on June 28th. Maybe those that need to re-group can do so, while others will try to hold onto their momentum.
I thoroughly enjoyed the race on Saturday night. Am I a Texas Motor Speedway apologist? No, because I thought last year’s race was a complete dud and I said so here the following Monday.
With the emphasis to move away from pack-racing, it’s really unfair to compare recent races at Texas to the mind-numbing thrills we experienced watching races there ten years ago. Saturday night’s race was thrilling, but in a different sort of way. We weren’t as concerned that a driver might end up in the catch-fencing, but nonetheless – I got a thrill watching to see whose strategy would pay off. In the end, Will Power could not quite pull off the win – but I’ll bet he caused great concern for Ed Carpenter heading into that final lap.
Ten years ago, I would breathe a sigh of relief when this race was over and no one was seriously injured. Saturday night, I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that Ed Carpenter had prevailed and won a hard-fought victory.
Both types of races were thrilling. Both types of races were fulfilling. Unlike the “Legions of the Miserable” on Twitter the other night, I don’t feel the need to compare the two types. I like both types on their own merit.