IndyCar and Texas have an identity crisis to sort out

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The Verizon IndyCar Series has raced at Texas Motor Speedway since 1997, but right now, the balance of what the racing is and what some think it should be appears out of whack – at least compared to past expectations.

TMS is a bit of a “lone wolf” on the current IndyCar calendar. As the single remaining 1.5-mile oval – in part because it’s a “legacy” event from the prior Indy Racing League era – figuring out a gratifying balance between driver and fan appreciation remains a perplexing conundrum.

Texas was rarely a “pack race” in the traditional sense during the IRL era, and even during the first few years of the merged championship where INDYCAR absorbed the assets of the Champ Car World Series. But mainly, there were still one or two dominant teams and a wealth of consistent side-by-side, or occasional three-wide racing.

Now, while this was a jaw dropping, edge of your seat phenomenon at the time, IndyCar did get lucky that two of its biggest accidents in the last dozen years at TMS occurred where they did and didn’t produce serious, life-threatening injuries.

Both Davey Hamilton (2001) and Kenny Brack (2003) had savage accidents on the backstraight, and in both cases got up into the catch-fencing. Fortunately, there were no fans seated either side of the straight for those incidents. And fortunately, debris from either incident didn’t cause major damage or injury to track safety workers or other drivers.

The racing at TMS didn’t change after either instance; it continued on the path of tight, almost pack but not exactly full pack racing for roughly seven more years. So did the danger element.

Exciting? Sure, to a higher percentage of those who attended or watched on TV. But to some, the TMS racing back then always felt in part like you were playing with fire – perhaps that’s a fair assessment given that the winner shoots six-shooters in victory lane and fire comes out of the backdrop there as well.

Then Las Vegas 2011 happened, and the concept of IndyCars racing on 1.5-milers was placed into the crosshairs. Texas survived the cuts while Vegas and Kentucky joined a scrap heap of 1.5-milers including Chicago and Kansas, among others that have not yet held another IndyCar race since.

Vegas wasn’t the single catalyst for the drawdown of IndyCar on 1.5-milers, but the events of that day certainly didn’t help matters going forward.

Anyway, it’s been left for Texas to carry the torch from 2012 onwards. And while the 2012 is hailed as the last “great” Texas race, the reasons for it going off as well as it did are threefold.

For one, there was a one-off wing package for that Texas race that has not been used since. The rear wing elements were a hybrid of the road course and superspeedway wing endplates, on top of the rear wheel guards. That helped increase downforce much more than what was there in 2013, and again this Saturday night.

Second, the tire fall-off was right in the window where it needed to be. Drivers wanted a car that was harder to drive after Vegas and could easily spread out – remember, there was angst at the time about returning to Texas beforehand, and Oriol Servia even tweeted an expletive to TMS president Eddie Gossage – yet the tire package delivered in harmony with the aero one.

Third, that year did not have Derrick Walker as INDYCAR President of Competition and Operations yet. Walker was almost placed into a no-win situation for the 2013 Texas race, where the aero element was changed to the superspeedway rear wings and downforce taken off the car, and to boot, it was his first race on the job. For all his accolades and what he’s brought to the position, Walker wasn’t in a position to influence the 2012 race and his first crack at 2013 was one of his rare missteps.

What happened this past Saturday night, then, was the medium between 2012 and 2013. Cars fell off, drivers still had to fight and hang onto their cars, and manage the tires.

At the end of the day you had a product that was decent – yet failed to measure up to the expectations of what Texas was rather than what it is now.

The funny thing is that as IndyCar fans and observers, we’ve been spoiled since the introduction of the Dallara DW12 ahead of 2012.

If a race is even remotely “boring” – or perceived as such – we decry it thusly: Sham! Abomination! Snoozefest! Some expletive combination!

The biggest thing going forward is that Texas has to figure out a way to sort out its identity from here.

What it has become is an event reminiscent of the early 1990s in North American open-wheel racing, which is to say, not a bad thing. The strategic elements still are fascinating, and in making the steps INDYCAR has done over the last couple years, the danger level for drivers has been greatly reduced.

And from nearly all the post-race quotes, you can tell the drivers like “new Texas.”

But the user expectation is still one of past Texas – the glory of NASCAR-ized open-wheel racing that often produced photo finishes and was basically the hallmark for the IRL. Consider the IRL-level crowds and consider the current ones, and it’s obvious which one the local crowd prefers.

TMS is still an integral part of the IndyCar schedule… but it needs to sort out what it wants to be from a perception standpoint.

It ain’t as good as it once was. But it can still be as good once, as it ever was.

IndyCar’s 2018 full-field grid nearing completion

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Following Wednesday’s confirmation of the all-Canadian tandem at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, each of the eight full-time teams in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season have announced at least one driver for 2018, leaving very few remaining question marks.

What stands confirmed is below:

CONFIRMED

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (1, Honda): Scott Dixon
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (1, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

There are four additional drivers confirmed for selected races or an month of May program:

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Calmels Sport with SPM (1, Honda): Tristan Gommendy
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser

All told that’s 17 full-season driver and team combinations confirmed and four additional part-time programs, at least, that are set. Several of those driver/team combinations will have engineering and strategist changes, as well.

In a minor note since our last update at Sonoma, Marco Andretti confirmed he won’t run No. 27 next year. Of note, Bryan Herta served as Andretti’s race strategist this year, although the car he was an entrant on was Alexander Rossi’s No. 98 car. Herta will continue his relationship with Andretti Autosport again next season.

WHAT’S LEFT TO SORT? NOT MUCH

Elsewhere, there’s only a handful of remaining question marks as the series hits mid-October, a rarity from past years and an illustration of the urgency to fill seats to get as much preparation time in testing with the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit as possible.

NBC Sports expects 2016 Indy Lights champion and 2017 IndyCar rookie-of-the-year Ed Jones to be confirmed soon as second driver in Dale Coyne Racing’s No. 19 Honda alongside Sebastien Bourdais, with team personnel and Bourdais both having indicated a preference in keeping the Dubai-based Brit for a second year.

NBC Sports also expects Jones’ successor as Indy Lights champion, Kyle Kaiser, to have his future announced shortly in terms of which team he’ll step up to IndyCar with. It would not be a surprise if Kaiser does graduate along with Juncos Racing, although Kaiser is known to have talked to multiple teams. The Mazda Motorsports scholarship nets him $1 million for a three-race program, including the 102nd Indianapolis 500, with the driver then needing to secure additional funding for further races, as Jones and Pigot both have each of the last two years.

The status of Brendon Hartley has now been thrown up as a slight question mark dependent on how his Formula 1 debut with Scuderia Toro Rosso goes at this weekend’s United States Grand Prix, and if Toro Rosso provides him a further race opportunity in one of the remaining three Grands Prix thereafter. Having been all-but-earmarked for Chip Ganassi Racing’s second seat in 2018, if an F1 offer comes, Hartley’s potential IndyCar bow could get delayed.

A McLaren-named entry competing either in the Indianapolis 500 or full-time seems further off than realistic for next year, McLaren’s Zak Brown told reporters on a teleconference this week. McLaren maintains an IndyCar technical presence though, via its McLaren Applied Technologies outfit.

What’s left then are the dominoes of whether Carlin’s IndyCar plans officially come to fruition as the team has gotten closer than it ever has to doing so, and who emerges in the second seats at A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Ed Carpenter Racing (road and street courses), respectively.

A number of young IndyCar veterans – Max Chilton, Charlie Kimball, Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly namely – are yet to land for 2018 and there’s no guarantee all four of them will be back in IndyCar next season.

There’s also a handful of young drivers, namely RC Enerson, Jack Harvey, Esteban Gutierrez, Santiago Urrutia, Zachary Claman DeMelo, Sage Karam and Matthew Brabham among others, who could well emerge in the frame for seats.

Gutierrez’s status seemed dependent on Mexico City being added to the 2018 calendar, and although the race still could be added, the fact neither is in place at this point doesn’t inspire as much confidence about his presence as a regular on the grid as it did earlier this summer.

All told, there’s not nearly that much to sort out as IndyCar’s grid for 2018 is looking very much close to set at this early stage of a long offseason.