Random Thoughts On Texas – Part II
After a Saturday night in June in which the Verizon IndyCar Series failed to turn a lap, a Sunday afternoon that saw not a whole lot of action until one of the biggest stars in the series was involved in a frightening crash just before the skies opened up – the Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway finally resumed seventy-six days later. It was well worth the wait.
James Hinchcliffe cycled to the front via pit stop strategy before the red flag came out in June. Saturday night, he proved that his being at the front was no fluke.
Going back to June, pole-sitter Carlos Muñoz led the first thirty-seven laps before pitting. Then Josef Newgarden led the next two laps before he pitted. Two laps later, he was being slammed cockpit-first into the front-stretch wall at Texas – breaking his clavicle and his right hand. Given the severity of the crash, Newgarden was very lucky. Ryan Hunter-Reay led for one lap before he pitted, handing the lead over to James Hinchcliffe – who had yet to pit.
With no clear-cut way to determine who belonged where with how much fuel, IndyCar officials decided the simplest thing to do was to give everyone a full load of fuel to restart Saturday night’s race. Although it may be fairer to some more than others, I agreed that this was the best tact for them to follow.
Quite honestly, I didn’t quite know what to expect Saturday night. Would it be a disjointed continuation of what we saw in June, or would it be a fast and furious mad-dash 171-lap shootout? It was the latter.
It didn’t take long to see that the drivers were seeing this as a golden opportunity to score points or secure a much-needed win in a short amount of time. The sparks were flying early – figuratively and literally. In the literal sense, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen sparks fly out from beneath the cars like they were doing Saturday night. The combination of cold tires and full fuel loads has always contributed to a little bit of visible sparking at night races, but nothing like we saw Saturday night. Perhaps it was the addition of the domed skids that added to the usual amount of sparking, but it was easy to think that a car was crashing when viewing the field from behind.
Dating back to the June portion of this race, James Hinchcliffe led 188 of the 248 total laps for this event. Counting only this past Saturday night, Hinchcliffe was even more dominant – leading 158 of the remaining 171 laps. He withstood challenges from Hunter-Reay, Ed Carpenter, Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan; yet managed to wrestle the lead back from each of them in no time at all.
But it was the last challenge on the final one-third of a lap that was his undoing. Graham Rahal dove underneath Hinch heading into Turn Three and took the lead on the final lap. Hinchcliffe fought back and was within a nose of passing Rahal on the outside. It may not have been that close had Rahal not raised his hand in the air leading into the front-stretch dogleg in a way-too-early celebration (more on that later).
Prior to the dramatic ending, there were three caution-periods. The first came on Lap 213, when Scott Dixon nudged up into Ed Carpenter’s rear bumper-pod. The result was Dixon taking a wild ride before slamming into the Turn One outside wall, before sliding down to the inside of the turn and getting clipped by the passing car of Helio Castroneves. Dixon proceeded to climb out of his car and issue his own version of the “double-bird” to Carpenter as he came back by. I’m sure once Dixon saw the replay, he might think differently on who may have actually deserved that salute.
But Carpenter also suffered damage from the contact. Five laps after the restart, Carpenter’s tire went down causing him to spin, collecting Helio Castroneves and Max Chilton in the process. Then with sixteen laps to go, Jack Hawksworth was again at the wrong place at the wrong time when he got caught up by a spinning Mikhail Aleshin coming out of Turn Four. Except for a sore knee for Jack Hawksworth, no drivers were injured in any of the three incidents on Saturday night. Of course, Newgarden is still smarting from his Texas crash in June. He and Conor Daly were in street clothes for the evening, not allowed to race after their June mishap.
The final laps were about as exciting as you will find in any form of racing, with a photo finish at the end to cap it off. This race was reminiscent of the old races at Texas, where it was edge-of-your-seat excitement and you were worn out from watching it. But in the end, you exhaled when it was over and you realized the great driving you had just witnessed. It also reminded me of why I have followed this sport for more than half a century.
TV Coverage: I am assuming that Leigh Diffey was originally scheduled to be in the booth for this race. However, he was reportedly stricken with a bout of diverticulitis and was unable to be there. I have dealt with this disease since 2005 and I feel his pain. When dealing with a flare-up, you are unable to do anything other than curl up in a ball in bed and wait for the days to pass before the pain subsides. Although I haven’t had flare-up in about four years, I remember them well. They aren’t fun. Get well soon, Leigh!
In his place was Kevin Lee, known for his pit-reporting on NBCSN, his Indy Lights broadcasts and his co-hosting duties on Trackside. I thought Kevin did an outstanding job as a fill-in and I could make a case for him getting the full-time gig for IndyCar races. Diffey brings excitement when he is there (even though I find his screaming to grow a little tiresome at times); but the problem is – he’s not always there.
This was an odd year because Diffey has been involved with the Olympics. But there are many races each season when Diffey is doing Formula One or on assignment elsewhere with NBC. I think NBCSN does an outstanding job covering the Verizon IndyCar Series, but I think some continuity in the booth could help enhance their coverage even more. If what we heard Saturday night from Kevin Lee was indicative of what he can do as a one-time substitute; imagine how effective he would be once he develops chemistry with the others in the booth.
The idle Conor Daly was tabbed to be Kevin’s replacement in the pits. Although I don’t think Daly reported one actual pit stop, he did a good job with his delivery and his insight when he offered up his opinion. Once his driving career is behind him, I think Daly has a future behind the microphone – just like his father, former driver and ESPN analyst Derek Daly.
A wise move: Points leader Simon Pagenaud was mixing it up with the leaders late in the race. In the final laps, he was going four-wide into Turn Three with three drivers who had not won a race in quite while and were hungry for that waning taste of victory one more time.
Fortunately for Pagenaud and the other three drivers, Pagenaud backed out of the throttle at the last minute before something crazy happened. That’s the sign of a veteran. It’s one thing to get too conservative while leading in the points. It’s another thing to do something stupid. Had he crashed, Pagenaud would have justifiably been labeled for doing something stupid. In the process, he would have probably handed over the points lead to his rival Will Power, who entered the night trailing Pagenaud by only twenty points.
By doing the wise thing, Pagenaud finished fourth while Power finished eighth – thereby increasing his lead over Power to twenty-eight points with two races to go. Pagenaud may not have gotten the glory for winning, but he increased his lead over Power and brought his car home in one piece.
The Legions of the Miserable: I realize many think I’m foolish for even glancing at social media, but I think it’s important for me to know what other fans are saying and thinking – especially after a race.
As you can imagine, social media was abuzz after Saturday night’s race at Texas. Most were still giddy about what they had just seen and were calling it an instant classic. They also repeated what a few of the drivers had said on television in post-race interviews essentially saying that if you didn’t like this race, then you don’t like racing.
However, I should not have been surprised that some of the usual suspects I follow were complaining about the race on Saturday night and into Sunday morning. They were labeling this as the return of pack racing and calling it fabricated and not real racing. Some saw this as another opportunity to get on their usual soapbox and rehash their tired campaign for canopies on cockpits. Of course, I’d prefer they use this opportunity rather than their usual tactics of riding the backs of a fatality to advance their own agenda – but I digress.
Some claimed that this type of racing was unnecessarily dangerous and it put divers and fans in peril and that IndyCar will eventually put a car into the grandstands if they keep running races like that.
First of all, this was not pack racing by any stretch of the imagination. Some of the loudest critics on Sunday morning even admitted they had not seen the race, but had only seen a video of the last ten laps. If anyone actually watched the race, they know that it didn’t take long for the field to spread out and run single-file after the beginning of each stint. That’s not pack racing. Pack racing has the entire field bunched together side-by-side from beginning to end.
They are basing their flawed logic on watching the race from the last restart, which came with only nine laps to go. Of course, they will be bunched up after a restart. Even the notoriously single-file Mid-Ohio has cars bunched after restarts.
I did not see anything that was unnecessarily dangerous Saturday night. Was there danger? Yes, it was a motor race – which is inherently dangerous by nature. There is no way to make this sport 100% safe where everyone is guaranteed to walk away unscathed. If there were, it would probably be an unwatchable product. Like it or not, it is the existing danger that captivates us. It’s not because we want to see drivers killed or injured. Instead, we fans marvel that these men and women perform at the highest level in the face of the existing danger. If it were easy, anyone could do it and there would be nothing to marvel at.
Did you hear the drivers after the race? They loved it. None of them spoke of any peril they were in. Yet these self-proclaimed experts think they are wiser than most other fans and all drivers. They appear to see it as their duty to save the drivers from themselves and put an end to what they consider unsafe racing.
I sometimes wonder why some of these so-called racing fans even tune in to watch IndyCar races. I’m not an NBA fan, but I simply choose not to watch NBA games. I don’t watch the games just to get on social media afterwards to tell NBA fans how stupid they are to enjoy it. I think the only joy these people get out of life must be in criticizing and throwing rocks at something that others truly enjoy. We all know people like that. They have no joy in their own miserable lives, so they see it as their God-given right to point out to others how wrong they are to get joy out of anything. It must be a sorry existence being them.
Early celebration: Graham Rahal appeared to almost cost himself the win on Saturday night, when he raised his arm in celebration entering the front-stretch dogleg way before crossing the finish line. Whether the additional drag of his arm slowed him down or not, he should have been more focused on James Hinchcliffe who was quickly charging on his right side. Like Rahal or not, it would have been worth a chuckle had the early celebration actually cost him the win. Had he been celebrating while Hinchcliffe charged up and crossed the line ahead of him, well – I don’t need to tell you what a punch-line Rahal would have become.
I was reminded of Philadelphia Eagles wide-receiver DeSean Jackson, who purposely and inexplicably dropped the ball on the one-yard line in a senseless hot-dogging early celebration against the Dallas Cowboys in 2008. The worst thing about Jackson’s early celebration was that he did it earlier as a high school recruit in the US Army-sponsored All-American bowl in 2005. This video shows both boneheaded moves by a complete bonehead.
Am I calling Rahal a bonehead? Not at all. He made a gutsy move that paid off for the win. I know that emotions get the best of all of us sometimes, but it would’ve taken someone with a pretty thick skin to withstand the ribbing that Rahal would have gotten had this celebration cost him the win that he had fought so hard for. Surely next time, Rahal will think twice before going for the early celebration. Fortunately, I think Rahal is much more mature than DeSean Jackson.
Seriously? Another “gem” I found on social media Saturday night was some troll urging Tony Kanaan to retire. Seriously? As he has done year in and year out, Tony Kanaan proved on Saturday night that he has not slowed down one bit by running up front at the end, fighting for the win and finishing third – despite the fact that he will be forty-two years old on New Year’s Eve.
There is an old saying in racing that says: “There are bold drivers and there are old drivers. But there are no old, bold drivers.” Tony Kanaan defies that old saying.
Tony Kanaan is a clean and savvy driver that uses his experience to know when and when not to be bold. How many times do people get out of a crashed car and say ”…Tony Kanaan took me out. That’s typical.” The answer to that question would be seldom, if ever.
Critics say that he is squandering his great Ganassi ride that should go to someone more deserving. Really? How great is this Ganassi ride? His teammate, Scott Dixon, has won one race this season – Phoenix, back in the early stages of the season. Other than that, it’s been a miserable year for Dixon who now sits sixth in the points. Where does Tony Kanaan sit? Third – and still within striking distance of the championship (admittedly with a lot of luck involved). One could argue that it may be the backsliding Chip Ganassi Racing that is holding back Kanaan instead of the other way around. For whatever reason, they’ve been chasing the setup at more tracks than not this season.
But to suggest Tony Kanaan should retire is ludicrous. If he were a perennial backmarker, I would agree. But instead, he races at the front with his Ganassi teammates usually languishing behind him. Is he in 2004 form when he won the championship? No, but I would also point out that he had one of the few Honda engines in the field that year. I think he is driving as good or better right now that in any point in his career. He is thriving despite the un-Ganassi like season his team is having. Throw in the fact that he is also a fan favorite and a great ambassador for IndyCar and you blow away any so-called logic for Kanaan to retire.
Not only do I think Tony Kanaan will be back in the series next season, I think he will be back in the No.10 car for Ganassi. That’s where he belongs.
All in all: Despite the moaning from the vocal minority, I loved the race Saturday night. There was no pack racing, just hard-fought racing that produced a thrilling ending. There is nothing better than watching an IndyCar race on television under the lights. OK, there is one thing – being at an IndyCar race under the lights. The cars just shimmer and look even faster than they already are.
Kudos to the track president Eddie Gossage and IndyCar’s Jay Frye for making the most out of a bad situation in June. When they announced that the race would be postponed for two and a half months, I didn’t know what to expect. But they made a silver lining out of June’s dark cloud on Saturday night. I’m not sure they could have had a better outcome of events than what they got Saturday night. Now, let’s see if they can build on that momentum for next year at Texas.