Random Thoughts On Texas

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Apparently, there were two IndyCar races run at Texas Motor Speedway on Saturday night. There was the one that I watched and then the one that a lot of other people watched. The race I saw featured a lot of passing, many drivers marching up through the field, the winner himself advancing to win from starting in the fourth row and a lot of gutsy passes made and attempted. Most importantly, I saw a safe race.

The race that many others must have seen was a very dull parade that had little or no action, and was entirely dependent on strategy to see Scott Dixon coast to an easy and boring win.

The only thing the two races had in common was that Scott Dixon won.

I had about three text conversations going throughout Saturday night’s race, all of them telling me how boring the race was and how it resembled a parade.

I saw two parades in 2009 – the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Verizon IndyCar Series race at Texas. One was very cheesy, while the other was very fast – but they both featured about the same amount of passing. If you want to see a boring race at Texas, go back and watch that one. You’ll suddenly appreciate what we saw Saturday night.

Was it the most scintillating race I’ve ever seen from Texas? No – not even close. Those heart-pounding pack races from past races at Texas had me on the edge of my seat, and for good reason – I was afraid someone was going to lose their life. When they would conclude, I would sit back in my chair in exhaustion. It didn’t really matter who won – I was just glad that everyone survived.

It’s a fine line that we race fans walk when it comes to the dangers of pack racing. I have found myself on both sides of the line in the past – defining pack racing, while both defending it and deploring it. For the record, I didn’t consider last year’s Texas race to be traditional pack racing – just close racing. There’s a difference.

What we saw at Texas for most of the last decade was pack racing pure and simple. Twenty-two cars (roughly) would fly around the track, clumped together like a swarm of bees. One bump or unintentional twitch of the wheel had the potential to have a car inadvertently lock wheels with the car inches away; hurtling it into the fence like we saw with Kenny Bräck in 2003.

It wasn’t a lack of skill or bravery that sent Bräck or Davey Hamilton into early (semi) retirement from their injuries at Texas. It was simply bad luck. A bit of luck plays its way into every race, but I don’t enjoy seeing luck being the major factor deciding who lives or suffers debilitating injuries. That’s not entertainment for me.

The flip side of that is watching a race that features no passing at all, such as the Texas race in 2009. Ryan Briscoe started second, but led 160 laps. Helio Castroneves had a superb pit stop that vaulted him into the lead on Lap 176 and he led the remainder of the race, with little or no passing going on behind them. Yawn.

I saw Saturday night’s race as the happy compromise in between the insanity of pack racing and the boredom of a parade. There were ten lead changes among seven different drivers. Yes, some of those leaders were due to pit stop shuffles, but six of those seven drivers were legitimate contenders (with Ed Jones being the lone exception).

There were two cautions for major crashes and one for a car on fire. There were a few other cars that brushed the wall on the exit of Turn Two; some kept going while Tony Kanaan’s team chose to park his car just after sending him back out after repairs. Alexander Rossi put on another show by running with the leaders all night after starting in the eighth position. He battled with Simon Pagenaud for second-place throughout the closing laps, but could never complete the pass despite multiple chances coming out of Turn Four. Credit both of those drivers for keeping it clean and not doing anything stupid for the sake of one position.

What did I like most about the racing on Saturday night? The car that was most dialed in was rewarded with being able to pull away and gain some distance from the rest of the field. With pack racing, that never happened. You could be the best driver with the fastest car, but the high downforce levels meant high drag that always allowed the other cars to stay with you.

In the case of Saturday night, one of the best drivers also had the best car. Scott Dixon made the most of it and distanced himself from second place. He crossed the line almost four and a half seconds before second place Simon Pagenaud. In the former days of pack racing, that’s an eternity.

So at the risk of making my friends think I’ve crossed to the dark side of preferring tactical street course racing over the raw-speed excitement that ovals can bring – I enjoyed Saturday night’s race. Nine of the twenty-two cars that started the race, finished on the lead lap with three more being only one lap down. Sixteen were running at the end. With the amount of passing we saw behind the leader, I’d say that was a pretty competitive race.

Best of all, the worst injury we saw all night was the wound to the pride and egos of Will Power and Ed Carpenter. Those two drivers finished first and second at last month’s Indianapolis 500, but they both had to admit at least partial blame in their respective crashes. To their credit, they both fessed up in their TV interviews.

TV Coverage: We no longer have ABC to kick around anymore. NBC is now the exclusive home for the Verizon IndyCar Series for the foreseeable future. That means they no longer have the luxury of being compared to ABC and will be judged purely on the effort they put forth going forward.

That being said, I thought NBCSN had a pretty solid outing at Texas. Robin Miller’s segments on the perils of the Pace Car driver in past races helped absolve some of the blame that many of us have placed on Mark Reuss for crashing the Pace Car last week at Belle Isle. He also had another excellent piece on Will Power coming to love American oval racing.

One segment that was something of a head-scratcher was the Butterball sponsored Whatcha Cookin? Apparently there will be six segments of different drivers preparing turkey-based meals in their homes, and then having them sampled and judged on-site just before races. Ryan Hunter-Reay was the first featured driver for this week. As fluid as he seems in interviews, he was very stiff and robotic in his own kitchen. I felt awkward just watching it. When it was over, pit-reporters Kevin Lee and Kelli Stavast served as the judges. It was equally awkward watching Stavast figure out what to do with her microphone as she took a massive bite that would have made Homer Simpson proud. For the record, Lee gave Hunter-Reay a “9” for his efforts. Stavast gave him an “8”, justifiably docking him for using canned cranberries. I hope upcoming segments of this feature aren’t as forced and awkward as this one was.

One critical mistake made by the NBC production team was to show (again) what had happened to Alexander Rossi at Belle Isle last Sunday. Why was this critical? Because it came with six laps to go, when Rossi was in a tight battle with Simon Pagenaud. They minimized the live action into a small box, while they showed Rossi’s bio and video from last week’s race in the large screen. Most of us know what happened last week. Those that didn’t were shown the same video earlier in the broadcast. At that point in the race, I was much more interested in whether or not Rossi was going to make the pass than I was about what had happened last week.

We haven’t seen Kelli Stavast on IndyCar broadcasts in a while. I’m guessing that NBC is using the June IndyCar races to get Stavast and Marty Snider in form for when they take over the NASCAR broadcasts in July. Then we’ll probably see the return of Jon Beekhuis and Katie Hargitt. Snider is good, but I always think of NASCAR when I hear his voice. As for Stavast, you’d never know that it had been a while since she last covered IndyCar. I thought she was very good in their Friday qualifying show and during the race.

One thing I noticed in Saturday night’s race; not only were the booth guys in NBC polos, but so were the pit reporters. I’m wondering if IndyCar has relaxed that requirement that pit reporters be in fire suits during the race, or if that was a one-time deal due to the Texas heat. I guess we’ll find out in two weeks in the much cooler climate at Road America.

Extended Pit-Exit: This year at Texas due to the slick apron, IndyCar extended the 60 mph pit-lane speed limit all the way around to exiting Turn Two on the backstretch. The problem was that cars exiting the pits were not even close to full-speed when they got to Turn Three. There weren’t any crashes, but this caused some uneasy moments a few times that I saw. I’m sure there were many more that I didn’t see.

It was agonizing to see cars going that slow entering the backstretch, but as the NBC crew kept reminding us – everyone had to do it.

Slow Response: Was it just my imagination, or was the AMR Safety Team a little late in arriving with the car of Matheus Leist was ablaze in Turn Three on Lap 7. Normally, they are on the spot before a crashed car even comes to a rest. But Saturday night, it seemed that Leist had been standing on the wall for a while before they showed up. When they did finally arrive on the scene, they didn’t seem to be in a huge rush. Paul Tracy even pointed out at the time that there didn’t seem to be much of a sense of urgency with them. Then again, if I see the driver safely out of harms way – I’m not sure how quickly I would want to approach a car engulfed in an inferno like that one was.

Foyt Woes: It was a night to forget for the Texas-based team owned by the legendary AJ Foyt. After years of dwelling without much success, there has been a sense of renewal at AJ Foyt Enterprises with the arrival of Tony Kanaan and promising rookie Matheus Leist. But it was like old times on Saturday night. As mentioned above, the car of Leist didn’t last seven laps before being mysteriously engulfed by flames. I’ve heard no official word on what happened, but you have to think that someone did not re-install something properly between the Friday night practice and Saturday’s race. Fires like that are not a common occurrence.

It didn’t take long for things to go from bad to worse. Just twenty laps later, Kanaan brushed the wall coming out of Turn Two and broke his rear-suspension. It’s a shame because Kanaan had been fast all weekend and was running with the leaders. They fixed the car and Kanaan ran a few laps before AJ told him to park it. They were so many laps down that I guess the risk of wadding up the car was not worth running for what would have been probably seventeenth place.

With both cars finishing last at the halfway point in the season, the Foyt team needs to regroup and figure out how to capitalize on their successes this season and not let the mistakes of the past resurface and ruin another season.

Rossi Pit Woes: Filed under the “what might have been” category is the drive that Alexander Rossi had. Unfortunately, his on-track exploits were undermined with two poorly performed pit stops near the end of the race. In Rossi’s third pit stop, there was a refueling problem that kept Rossi sitting while his rivals were driving away. Then on his fourth and final stop, there was a problem changing the right-front tire.

I don’t think Rossi or anyone else was going to catch Scott Dixon on Saturday night. But considering that Rossi finished just three-tenths of a second behind Simon Pagenaud, I think it’s safe to say that Rossi probably would have finished second without those extended pit stops. You hope that the championship does not come down to Rossi finishing second by less than those five points that make up the difference between finishing second in a race and finishing third.

Drive of the Day: For a while, it looked like Zach Veach was a shoe-in for the coveted award of being the Oilpressure.com Drive of the Day. By the way, for those that are humorly challenged – that was sarcasm. Veach was on a tear in the first part of the race, moving up ten spots from his sixteenth starting spot and running as high as third. But he brushed the wall coming out of Turn Two and damaged his rear-suspension, much like Tony Kanaan did. It took ten laps to repair the car and the impressive rookie finished where he started, in sixteenth.

Had he not brushed the wall, Veach may have still been eclipsed by the drive that Graham Rahal had. Rahal started twentieth and even led five laps before finishing in sixth place. While I’m sure Rahal is pleased with winning Drive of the Day so many times, I’m sure he would like to have actual race wins. Just imagine what Rahal could do in a race if he was able to qualify better.

All in All: While the DXC Technology 600 was not edge-of-your-seat excitement, I thought it was a very entertaining race. There was never a time that I thought I might nod off from boredom. I can’t say that about every race, including last Saturday’s race at Belle Isle. Until there were about fifty laps to go, I didn’t know who was going to win Saturday night. But at around Lap 200, it became fairly obvious that unless something strange happened – this was Scott Dixon’s race to lose.

As it has all season, the championship took some interesting turns. After crashing on Lap 204, Will Power tumbled in the championship falling from the lead to third place. Scott Dixon and Alexander Rossi both leap-frogged over Power, to take first and second place in the championship respectively. Josef Newgarden had another off-night as his June swoon continues. But by finishing a disappointing thirteenth, he was able to remain in fifth place in the championship. Ryan Hunter-Reay finished fifth and remains fourth in points. But by finishing sixth, Graham Rahal climbed one spot in the championship to sixth but still remains more than one-hundred points from Dixon.

The Verizon IndyCar Series gets a much-needed break for Father’s Day. If you count the IMS Open Test on Monday April 30, this will be the first full weekend off since the Easter weekend of April 1. That’s a long time. Here’s hoping everyone connected with the series gets a well-earned rest, before the series reconvenes at Road America in a little less than two weeks. Susan and I plan to attend that race for the third year in a row. More on that next week.

Another IndyCar race at Texas is in the books. Not too many cars left damaged and no drivers left with any injuries. Whether or not it was a great race is up for debate, here and on other sites. But in my opinion that doesn’t really count for much – I thought it was a good race. Let the debating begin!

George Phillips

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17 Responses to “Random Thoughts On Texas”

  1. BrandonWright77 Says:

    I quite enjoyed the race. Most of it seemed like a good blend between pack racing and processional, there were lots of passes and attempted passes, some cautions, some long green flag runs, and for most of the race I had no idea who would win. I too was surprised at seeing how many people said it was boring. Phoenix was boring, Texas was not (in my opinion). It did kinda fizzle out after the last restart but watching Rossi try to get around Simon was worth the price of admission for me.

  2. Ron Ford Says:

    It was a open wheel race car race. I liked it. I appreciate the series, the teams, the drivers, the support people, and the sponsors who contribute to such events. The best driver with the best car ran away and hid from the field leaving Rossi to whine about having to pass lapped cars.

  3. James T Suel Says:

    I enjoyed the race Saturday night. I think it was a good race, not the most exciting I’ve seen but a lon way from boring! I wonder if what’s going on with some of the fans ,maybe they just came along in the early IRL days and are spot to pack racing. I also think they may need to look at more than just 1st and 2nd place in the runing.

  4. Enjoyed the race. Used to love the pack races there, but yeah, too scary. Too out-of-control. This race seemed in control. Not sure Mr. Dixon will ever get the credit he deserves. Speaking of in control–Bourdais made an interesting point in his interview with Miller and Pruett on Racer after the race. To paraphrase he said something like Indycar promotes a more dangerous race than they can actually allow on the track.

  5. It is amazing how quietly Scott Dixon has reached third on the all time win list behind A.J. and Mario. Granted it might be because he is only running in one racing discipline, where the others also had additional wins in other areas. But it’s still a major accomplishment.

    I thought it was a good race. First time I’ve been able to watch NBCSN in quite a while and it was obvious how much better they were than ABC with anticipating moves and showing them before they happened. They were right on the Carpenter accident from the beginning because they anticipated a move.

    I was a bit surprised at how quickly a couple of the cars caught on fire. I’m guessing Indycar is looking into that.

  6. Shyam Cherupalla Says:

    I thought the last two yellows were way too long, they went yellow (last but one yellow) on lap 174 only to resume back to green around lap 186 and the last yellow lasted some 13 laps (lap 204 to 217). Indycar has to figure out how to get back to green faster. Also the horizontal scrolling of Driver order is so very annoying to keep track of your favorite driver. If you are looking for the brief amount of time for your favorite driver’s order you miss the race action and sometimes you are caught watching the race action and miss your driver’s name passing by and have to wait for another 30 seconds. Why not resort to F1 style display of drivers’ order on the side?

  7. Carburetor Says:

    I too, enjoyed this race and thought it was pretty exciting. I enjoyed the Rossi/Pagenaud duel at the end–and enjoyed Rossi’s interview after the race–he was very complimentary of the new car. And Simon evidently learned his lesson from last year and never gave up the inside lane.

    I also agree, it seemed like forever for the safety crew to get to M Leist–shades of the di Silvestro fire years back–and they didn’t seem all that in a hurry to jump out of the truck and hose the fire…

    Graham Rahal might be a winning force in this league if he could ever qualify in a decent position!

  8. Not that anybody was waiting for baited breath for my comments (it’s likely quite the opposite), but I seriously enjoyed the race, along with my first TMS experience.

    It’s hard to know much about a place by seeing it on TV (anybody who’s been to Barber can vouch for this), but TMS does not look in person like it’s now old enough to legally be able to buy its own beer (I assume the mountains of Busch tallboys that have been available there before 2018 were bought by Charlotte or Atlanta and brought in the back gate…). The amenities and layout of the place are current enough that I’d probably believe you if you told me that Eddie Gossage had the place completely razed in about 2013 and rebuilt with all up to date thought processes. Plenty of varied concession stands (although much to my daughter’s dismay, the Dippin’ Dots stands had both run out of everything by Lap 150, so after a search that spanned about 35 laps of action, she had to slum it with a Haagen Dazs bar), cooling/misting stations every couple hundred yards on the concourse, the sightlines are all great, even from the lowest seats (we were in Row 10 just past Start/Finish, and could see the cars everywhere except for the middle of the backstretch, where they were blocked by Victory Lane and some other infield structures), and the way the whole place is situated, probably 80% of the grandstand was in shade by 5:00 PM (which was before even the Stadium Super Trucks qualifying race), which made even the 94 degree heat totally bearable, with help from a bit of a breeze. The presence of the Stadium Super Trucks doing races before and after the IndyCar race, plus the scaled down version of the IndyCar fan village (maybe 1/3rd the size of what was at Indy), plus a quick tweet up at 4:00 (attended by Gabby Chaves, who was nice enough to answer some fan questions and take a group picture with everybody) actually meant that even though we arrived right as the gates opened at 3:30, we didn’t even have a chance to check out the “Off Road Rumble” (Jeep ride alongs, plus other truck-based amusements) in the infield, or the USAC racing that I heard was going on at the short track off of the backstretch. The at-track experience was very nice, and as much as I personally maybe haven’t loved everything Eddie Gossage has said and done over the years (calling out the drivers as sissies for being slightly concerned about the fence configuration wasn’t my favorite moment of the last decade, for instance), TMS is a great place to watch a race, and I’d recommend it to anybody. I’ll go ahead and consider my one way relationship with Mr. Gossage patched up now.

    As for the racing, I’ll admit that before the IndyCar race started, I had done some considering of the things that could go wrong, and have gone wrong at mile and a half tracks in the past. The fact that cars have wound up in the fence, and parts have gone over (and through) the fence at these types of tracks did enter into my mind, as a probably overprotective parent, so I will say that I was very, very relieved at the type of racing that we did see on Saturday night. While still risky (any time you have a vehicle with a person inside that’s travelling at over 200 MPH in close vicinity to stationary items, there is risk involved), it was not at the increased level that comes with open wheels running within inches of each other for minutes on end. A few portions of the race got a bit processional, but even as a paying attendee, I don’t insist on being entertained for every single second that I’m there (after all, if I were, there would be no circumstance that I’d ever pay to attend a baseball game of any skill level). The spectacle of seeing cars go by at over 200 MPH alone is pretty incredible, and the fact that passing was still quite possible (minus the end, where Alexander Rossi being unable to get around Simon Pagenaud spoiled the only chance for anybody to chase down Scott Dixon, which I actually think Rossi would have been able to do, he was that quick all night) meant that I was totally OK with the “show”. Could the cars maybe be tweaked a bit to “race better”? Eh, maybe, but I think they’re about 90-95% perfect as they sit, so I wouldn’t take much of a swing at big changes. 100-200 lbs of extra downforce might be all that’s necessary to allow a little extra passing, but I wouldn’t even want that, if it comes with side by side racing for laps and laps on end.

    TL,DR: I enjoyed my afternoon/evening/night at Texas Motor Speedway, and my daughter LOVED her first exposure to IndyCar and “big time racing” in general (in particular, she was blown away by the SST qualifying race; verbatim quote: “I really like being able to FEEL the trucks as they go past!”). Big ups to everybody at TMS for putting on a great event. And an extra special thanks to old blog friend/new “in person friend” billytheskink, for saying hello/chatting for a while, and sharing one of his excellent spotter guides with us (my daughter was VERY impressed…she loves stuff like that……as do I). We hope to see you at the track again soon, or, at the very least, at TMS next June.

    • good one geek.

    • billytheskink Says:

      It was a great pleasure to meet you and your daughter and chat for a while, Speedgeek. I am glad you all had a great time. I look forward to seeing you all again at the track soon, and I’ll make certain to have another pixel-art spotter’s guide for you (I usually make them for every IndyCar race I attend).

      Don’t tell George what we said about him, though…

  9. billytheskink Says:

    This one was not unlike the Texas races seen in the pre-aerokit era of the DW-12, with tire management and finding grip on the outside being key. Actually, last year’s race was shaping up to be quite like that as well, until the competition cautions kept everyone on fresh tires and made restarts frequent.

    I thoroughly enjoyed it, though I’ve been told I’m easy to please. I don’t really like feeling like I have to justify why I enjoyed it, but since it apparently did not entertain some folks I will do so anyways. Watching the Penskes wilt as the sun went down and their tires wore out was fascinating, as were the thrilling drives put in by Wickens, Rossi, Rahal, and Dixon. I thought the drivers raced hard and (largely) fair and I’m as excited to go back to the track next year as I was to go this year after leaving the 2017 race.

    On another note… while I won’t vouch for the overall quality of that 2009 Texas race, I will offer that it provided one of the most vivid memories I have had at a race I personally attended. Marco Andretti put on a masterful drive in his attempt to catch Briscoe, passing in the slippery outside lane where no one else dared, before losing his hard fought track position on that late caution.

  10. Bruce Waine Says:

    Just wondering if anyone has an attendance figure?

    Appeared that two major stand sections were completely empty – perhaps due to spectator safety (flying debris) concerns?

    With just he mid-seating section occupied (about one-third or less of total stadium seats occupied), it begs the question if the INDYCar event was a break even financial event and what it bodes for future running at TMS.

    • billytheskink Says:

      I doubt an official or even semi-official attendance figure will be released, but I have seen estimates ranging from 20,000 to perhaps 60,000. The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle. I would argue that the 20K figure is a significant lowball, given that TMS claimed to be providing 20,000 Hinchcliffe bobbleheads to fans and those were exhausted more than an hour and a half before the green flag. The 60K figure would seem high given that only some stands were occupied (and not completely packed) and that infield and backstretch camping was not entirely full. TMS does have two levels of suites above the entire grandstand, which likely have contained a fair-sized crowd not visible in television shots.

      Two major sections of the stand were closed because ticket demand for anything but the NASCAR Cup race is not high enough to justify selling in those sections (to justify the cost of operating security/concessions/restrooms in those sections). These closed sections make up a bit less than half of TMS’ 112,000 public grandstand seats.

      Like pretty much all Indycar races, TMS relies on sponsorship and hospitality sales as much if not more so than public grandstand attendance to make money. The Indycar race, as it has been since 2000, was title sponsored (by DXC.technology), though the title sponsor was new to the race this year and was already associated with an IndyCar team (which may suggest they received a discount). The qualifying session also carried title sponsorship, as did the race’s associated events. Several Indycar sponsors buy track signage at TMS year-round (Firestone, Chevrolet, NTT Data, DXC Technology). The track has hundreds of suites, many of which are sold for the season if not for the Indycar race specifically. Arrow Electronics also purchased space for a hospitality tent outside of turn 3.

      TMS once drew crowds worth bragging about. It no longer does that, but I would be surprised if the actual attendance was not around the average for a non-500 and non-Long Beach Indycar race. I expect that IndyCar will remain at TMS as long as the race continues to draw title sponsorship and an average-sized crowd. This year it did both, just as it has done in the recent past. I would be surprised if the story was not similar next year.

      • Bruce Waine Says:

        Thanks for the detailed additional info.

        Goes to show that you cannot judge the attendance based upon what the television viewer sees on screen.

      • BrandonWright77 Says:

        From tv I thought the crowd looked pretty good. Of course there were large sections of empty grandstands that were closed off but that’s to be expected at most IndyCar oval races outside of Indy, unfortunately. But the sections that were open looked fairly well populated and I guesstimated around 40,000, and 40,000 for an average IndyCar race (except of Indy) is for the most part a really great crowd. Fontana a few years ago was our low mark at less than 5,000 if I recall correctly, so I generally consider anything over 20,000 at an oval a good crowd.

  11. First off, great race. Great balance of everything.

    Secondly….Scott Dixon. Born in 75 I was too young to witness AJ in his prime. I remember watching Mario at or near the top of his game in the mid 80s, but again, I was a kid. It’s been such a pleasure to see Dixon’s entire career and watch what he’s accomplished. I have to remind myself once and a while that I’m seeing one of the all time greats in real time. His performances have a way of reminding us that too! Enjoy it. Hard to say when the next Scott Dixon comes along!

  12. Ron Ford Says:

    Robin Miller summed up the Texas race and the fan reactions to it best at Racer.com today.

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