Texas Preview

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We are in what I call the roller-coaster portion of the schedule. In a two-week period, the Verizon IndyCar Series has gone from my favorite race track on the schedule, to my least favorite (Belle Isle) and then to a track that is either my second or third favorite venue – Texas Motor Speedway. For those wondering which track might be tied with Texas for my second favorite track – it’s Iowa Speedway.

Keep in mind, I’ve never been to either venue. I’m just going by what I’ve witnessed on television over the years. But what I’ve seen at both of those tracks has been some spectacular racing.

Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage raised eyebrows last week when he suggested that pack racing was the best kind of racing. While his comments stirred painful memories of the fatal crash of Dan Wheldon, I think I know what he was trying to say – in a somewhat callous fashion.

The pack racing that was common at Texas for most of the 2000’s kept viewers, spectators and participants on the edge of their seats for the entire race – just not necessarily for the right reasons. If I’m watching a football game and my team is driving for the potentially winning touchdown, I’m on the edge of my seat (or standing) with excitement. When watching a race at Texas prior to 2009, I was on the edge of my seat but it was mostly out of fear of what bad thing might happen.

More times than not, disaster would be averted and I would breathe a huge sigh of relief. But there have been a couple of crashes that had life-altering results; most notably – Davey Hamilton’s crippling accident in 2001 and Kenny Bräck’s horrifying crash in 2003. Both of these crashes resulted in serious injuries and were a direct consequence of the close pack-racing that Texas had become known for. Fans loved it, drivers hated it.

I’ve always considered the 2009 IndyCar season to be one of the dullest in history. All but one race was won by either a Penske or Ganassi car. Many of the races were mostly single-file parades with very little passing – even on the ovals. Such was the case at Texas, as well. Helio Castroneves got the lead from teammate Ryan Briscoe, by making a quicker pit stop instead of passing him on the track; and led a boring parade that saw only seven lead changes among four drivers – an extremely low number by Texas standards. This was due mostly by a very strict rulebook that allowed hardly any flexibility among the teams to tweak anything aerodynamically. It was good that it broke up the pack racing, but they went too far. Passing was practically impossible.

The new DW12 has proven to be very racy at most tracks, but I wouldn’t say it has been spectacular at Texas. I remember a couple of years ago when ABC chose to broadcast the Texas race in primetime, we all thought (hoped) that the world would see an exciting edge of your seat race that proved once-and-for-all that racing in IndyCar was superior to anything else on the planet. Instead, it was another snoozer. Helio Castroneves dominated by leading the final 132 laps and winning almost five seconds over second-place finisher Ryan Hunter-Reay. The race was understandably back on cable the next year.

Last year’s race was a thriller for all the right reasons. The pack racing didn’t return, but we got to witness a difference in strategy. With a late-race caution and Ed Carpenter leading, Will Power chose to pit for fresh tires while Carpenter stayed out. The green came out with two laps to go. The tires made all the difference as Power absolutely charged through traffic and almost took the lead in only two laps. Carpenter was able to hold off Power at the line for a thrilling victory. Had there been just one more lap, I have no doubt that Power would have won the race.

Texas Motor Speedway has had a continuous presence on the IndyCar schedule since the track opened in 1997. The first race was infamously known for a scoring mishap that saw Billy Boat standing in Victory Lane and AJ Foyt slapping Arie Luyendyk from behind and knocking him over some bushes, as Luyendyk claimed he won the race. The next day, Luyendyk was proven right and awarded the victory; but Foyt still has the trophy to this day.

From 1998 until 2004, the series visited the 1.5 mile oval in Fort Worth twice a year – once in June for a night race, then a day race in the fall. Once Texas was awarded a second NASCAR Cup race, they no longer had interest in a second IndyCar race so the fall race went away after the 2004 season.

This year, there is the added variable of the aero kits. The disparity at Indianapolis did not seem as great between the two manufacturers on the giant oval as much as on road and street courses. Plus there is the new closure panels for the rear wheel guards being implemented this weekend to throw in something else to make things interesting.

There are some driver changes for this weekend. As a reward for his great finish at Belle Isle, Tristan Vautier will return to Dale Coyne’s No.19. I was surprised, but very happy to learn Tuesday that our friend Pippa Mann will be driving the blue & white No.18 car for Coyne. This will be Pippa’s first race away from Indianapolis since Fontana in 2013. It’s also her first time in a car at Texas since that year, when a fire erupted in the rear of her car on Lap Two. Her evening was done, barely before it started. Hopefully, she’ll have much better luck on Saturday night.

Ryan Briscoe will pilot the No.5 car, as James Hinchcliffe continues to recover from his injuries. Briscoe will take over from Conor Daly, who did a nice job in the car last week at Detroitl. As much as I’d like to see Daly in the car full-time until Hinchcliffe is well enough to return, it makes sense to put Briscoe in that car for Texas. Briscoe performed admirably at Indianapolis starting at the back of the field and spinning on the first lap, to finish twelfth. Plus, Briscoe won at Texas in 2010 while driving for Roger Penske. I think Sam Schmidt made the right call.

This year’s points race needs to tighten up some at the top, if there is to be any suspense in the second half of the season. Right now, twenty-one points separate points-leader Juan Montoya and second-place Will Power. Scott Dixon is in third, but is currently sixty-three points behind Montoya. The tighter positions come after that. With his 8-point penalty from the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis reduced to only three, Helio Castroneves is now in fourth-place, just two points behind Dixon. Coming off of a great drive on Sunday and continuing his stellar year, Graham Rahal is now fifth in points and is currently just four points behind Helio.

There were two winners last week at Belle Isle that did not come from the Penske and Ganassi stables. Rain throws that kind of variable into the mix. If rain factors into this weekend, they just won’t race. Therefore, as unpopular as some may claim it to be – Saturday night’s winner will come from those two top teams. It just won’t be the highest in points from either of those teams. Tomorrow night’s winner is having a sub-par season so far and needs to get back on track – even though his bad results have been more bad luck than anything. Winning cures all and it will help salvage a disappointing season so far that currently finds him languishing in twelfth. I’m talking about Tony Kanaan. We’ll see.

George Phillips

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5 Responses to “Texas Preview”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    Always look forward to TMS. There is no race that I see faster sustained speeds in person year-after-year. That alone is thrilling, but improved competition would certainly be welcome.

    I had heard it said that Gossage and Bruton Smith were interested in keeping the second Indycar race after receiving the second NASCAR date, but NASCAR refused to allow the two on the same race weekend. Perhaps that was just speculation, but TMS is a facility where Indycar and NASCAR are treated roughly equally in most ways by the management.

    Heading out to Fort Worth shortly for the full weekend race experience. Enjoy the race everyone.

  2. Ron Ford Says:

    While Einstein’s famous definition of insanity is a bit tread worn, I will invoke it here and finally do something different. Over and over and over I have picked winners and my picks never win, so I am not picking anyone today. I will simply say that I hope race fans are the winner including our track side friend the Skinkster.

  3. I like coming to Texas not only because I like the track but also because Eddie Gossage has our full attention. I have always liked Eddie and more times than not he has been standing with this series when there was no one else standing along with him.

    I expect a great race and would like to see Ed put together a great performance.

  4. I do not understand why TK isn’t getting better results than he has been. He really could use a win. I am picking Power if you held one of Eddie’s pistols to my head.

  5. Yannick Says:

    The night race at TMS is too far out of my time zone to make it worthwhile watching: it starts at 1:30 am
    Only once have I watched it live: it was the year when Danica Patrick fought hard to achieve a 2nd place finish, in what might have been her raciest performance in IndyCar ever (in spite of having won another race). She thoroughly impressed me with this drive (and I didn’t cheer for her before that at all).
    Since she quit the series before the current car was introduced, we may never find out whether she would have had further stunning performances such as this one. But she has also always been a master at bringing the car home and staying out of trouble which, I think, is what greatly benefits her in NASCAR, even though she had to face the same acclimatisation problems there as other IndyCar stars have (Franchitti, Hornish, Allmendinger).

    I was not following the sport when CART had their TMS race cancelled due to medical problems of all drivers related to g-forces in the early 00s but I certainly had heard about it, and this caused me to have a certain bias against this track. It’s very low on my list of IndyCar tracks to visit, so I don’t mind it’s not in my time zone and I cannot watch it. Yet, it’s not to me like Belle Isle is for you, George. That dubious honor would have gone to the Reliant Stadium Circuit at Houston which has since fallen off of the schedule.

    Here’s wishing everyone of you an enjoyable and safe race tonight.

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