Tomorrow night, the Verizon IndyCar Series takes the stage at Texas Motor Speedway (TMS). Although I’ve never been to the now-twenty year-old track near Ft. Worth, it has become one of my favorite tracks on the IndyCar schedule.
Saturday night will mark the twenty-seventh IndyCar race at TMS, since the series started racing there in 1997. That’s not taking into account that there were technically two races in one night in 2011, in a bizarre decision to split the distance in half and draw for positions for the second “race” of the evening. Fortunately, that crazy format was abandoned after one year.
From 1998 through the 2004 season, the series ran at Texas twice a year – a night race in June and a day race in the fall – and was the traditional season-ending race from 1999 through 2004. When NASCAR started running a second Cup race there in 2005, that spelled an end to the second IndyCar race at Texas – leaving only the night race in June.
There are a lot of memorable IndyCar moments from TMS. It was in 1997 that Arie Luyendyk was comically slapped from behind and unceremoniously knocked over some shrubbery by AJ Foyt after Luyendyk complained he was the actual winner instead of Foyt’s driver Billy Boat. The next day, it was determined that Luyendyk was right but who still has the trophy to this day? AJ Foyt.
Texas is also the scene of the 2001 CART race that never happened. With the faster cars from CART running 235 mph on the high-banks at Texas, drivers were complaining of vertigo after only a few laps. After a couple of unexplained crashes, the fears of drivers passing out while running those speeds over long periods of time outweighed the embarrassment of cancelling the race. The race was cancelled after qualifying had already taken place.
For more than a decade, IndyCar races were wild and crazy. Pack racing was the rule as the field flew around the 1.455 mile oval in less than twenty-five seconds in one big swarm. The races at Texas defined wheel-to-wheel racing. The races were exhausting to watch from the couch. I can only imagine how exasperating they were from the cockpit of a car.
Two drivers in particular are lucky to be alive today after spectacular crashes at Texas. Davey Hamilton crashed hard in Turn Two in the fall race of 2001, mangling his feet and ankles. He did not step into an IndyCar again until the 2007 Indianapolis 500.
In fall of 2003, Kenny Bräck crashed into the fence along the backstretch, after being launched when he locked wheel with Tomas Scheckter. Had there been spectators in those seats, it would have been disastrous. There wasn’t much left of the car and I feared the worst as Bräck lay motionless in what was left of the tub. He broke his sternum, his femur, shattered vertebrae in his spine and crushed his ankles, among other multiple injuries. After eighteen months of rehab, Bräck returned to the cockpit for the 2005 Indianapolis 500 and was the fastest qualifier, but not the pole sitter.
Somewhere towards the end of the last decade, IndyCar decided to tweak the aero-package of the cars, making the cars much more turbulent in traffic – thereby making pack racing virtually impossible. The racing at Texas was safer, but not near as exciting. It exposed the fine line that we fans walk. We claim we want the races exciting, which is what pack racing brings. But it was pack racing that caused the accident in 2011 that took the life of Dan Wheldon. We can’t have it both ways.
So now fans are claiming that the races at Texas Motor Speedway are now snoozers. That’s not entirely true. The 2012 race that saw Justin Wilson win after Graham Rahal brushed the wall while leading was an exciting race, even though it did not feature the intense side-by-side racing that Texas was known for in the past. The following year, the race was aired on ABC in prime time, but unfortunately – that race was coma inducing. It has yet to return to network prime time TV.
Ed Carpenter won as a part-time driver in 2014 in a race decided by tire wear. Will Power changed tires in the waning laps and came charging through the field and almost caught Carpenter in the final lap. Had the race run another two laps, I’m convinced Power would have won.
Quick…without looking, can you name who won last year’s race at Texas? It was Scott Dixon winning a true snoozer that saw only one caution period – debris on Lap 84. Simon Pagenaud made the only real pass for the lead when he passed pole-sitter Will Power on Lap 7. Pagenaud led until he pitted, when Tony Kanaan assumed the lead after the pit stop shuffles. On the final round of pit stops, Dixon assumed the lead on Lap 194 and led the rest of the way. [yawn]
It was a race when Chevy showed total dominance, taking the top four spots, while Honda led a total of only four laps – two each by James Jakes and Marco Andretti on pit stop shuffles.
Fortunately for fans, it appears that Honda has caught up to some extent – especially on high-speed ovals. Will the Honda speedway aero kit be as effective at Texas as it was at Indianapolis? Your guess is as good as mine. But in my non-engineering mind, I’m thinking it will be, and that means a much more competitive race for the fans than last year’s was.
I’m thinking this race will silence the critics that claim Texas is a snoozer. I’m not predicting the nail-biting races of a decade ago. That’s probably just as well. Now that I’m a decade older, I’m not sure I can take that type of excitement for two hours. But I do think that this race will be a far more interesting race than the 2015 nap fest. I hope so, because seeing the cars glisten at night (except for the ugly matte-finish car of Charlie Kimball) on the high banks at Texas is always a high point of the season for me.
My prediction is that Honda will score its second victory of the season, after Alexander Rossi won at Indianapolis. I’m also predicting that it will be another Andretti Autosport driver – but it won’t be Rossi. It will be Ryan Hunter-Reay, who won the 2012 IndyCar championship and the 2014 Indianapolis 500 but has never won at Texas. Saturday night, he will don the cowboy hat and shoot the pistols into the Texas sky for the first time – adding that honor to his résumé.