IndyCar and Texas have an identity crisis to sort out


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.

Townsend Bell goes to Mexico, and duels with luchadors (VIDEO)

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This weekend at the Mexican Grand Prix, usual Verizon IndyCar Series analyst Townsend Bell is back in the F1 paddock, filling in for Will Buxton this weekend with Buxton tending to his family.

Bell’s IndyCar analyst colleague Paul Tracy famously donned a “luchador” mask in 2006 during the Champ Car race in Montreal, after he dueled with Alex Tagliani and Sebastien Bourdais in back-to-back races in San Jose and Denver.

But Thursday in Mexico City, it was Bell’s turn.

Bell teased it a bit on social media before a video was shown today during second free practice (and linked above) in Mexico City of his duel with a pair of luchadors Thursday evening in “Lucha Libre,” a form of professional wrestling in Mexico.

While he accepted the challenge to get into the ring with a pair of luchadors, he may regret this decision.

Most of the photos below were shot by Jamey Price, an ace photographer.

Inside the deep data dive at Red Bull Racing (VIDEO)

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NBCSN’s Steve Matchett caught up with Red Bull Racing’s Paul Monaghan, Chief Engineer of Car Engineering, and Bill Moseley, Director of Marketing Communications at AT&T, for a deeper drive on data and sensors and how it’s all transmitted from Red Bull Racing at the track back to the team headquarters in Milton Keynes in England.

In the above video shot last week at Circuit of The Americas for the United States Grand Prix, Matchett finds out about the sensors on a car, how the sensors transfer data to the team and the impact of their findings.

You can watch this weekend’s Mexican Grand Prix on NBC at 2:30 p.m. ET on Sunday; a full list of times for the weekend is linked here.

Vettel surprises Mercedes by leading second Mexican GP practice

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - OCTOBER 28:  Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP) on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Mexico at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez on October 28, 2016 in Mexico City, Mexico.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Sebastian Vettel sprung a surprise on Mercedes in the second Formula 1 practice session ahead of the Mexican Grand Prix by topping the timesheets for Ferrari on Friday afternoon.

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton led the way in opening practice, and was expected to run at the front once again with teammate Nico Rosberg when teams switched to qualifying simulations in FP2 at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez.

However, it was Vettel who laid down the pace on the super-soft tire for Ferrari, setting a benchmark lap of 1:19.790 for Hamilton and Rosberg to follow mid-way through the session.

Neither Mercedes driver could get ahead, despite both attempting two flying laps on their super-softs, with Hamilton (below, talking to NBCSN’s Townsend Bell) getting within just 0.004 seconds.

Rosberg slotted into third place, almost half a second further back after struggling during his qualifying run.

Kimi Raikkonen followed in fourth place for Ferrari ahead of Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg, the latter finishing an impressive sixth despite setting his fastest time on the slower soft tire.

Max Verstappen was seventh in the second Red Bull, bouncing back from his troublesome morning session, with Valtteri Bottas in eighth. The Spanish pair of Carlos Sainz Jr. and Fernando Alonso rounded out the top 10 places in FP2.

Mexican drivers Sergio Perez and Esteban Gutierrez ended 15th and 22nd, respectively. Perez caught up with NBCSN’s Townsend Bell on Thursday and that video is below.

The session was notable for the difficulty that drivers had making their super-soft tires last. Few drivers were able to keep on pace for more than a handful of laps before taking big chunks out of the tire, suggesting that the soft and medium compounds will be favored for the race.

Qualifying for the Mexican Grand Prix is live on NBCSN from 2pm ET on Saturday.

Flying Lizard double news: Porsches in PWC, Toyo Audi at Thunderhill

Photo: Porsche AG
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It’s been a busy week for Flying Lizard Motorsports, with a pair of program announcements. One venerable chassis and two new ones have been announced for the Sonoma, Calif.-based team.

Earlier this week, Flying Lizard confirmed the return of its Toyo Tires partnership in the Toyo-shod and liveried No. 45 Audi R8 LMS ultra at NASA’s 25 Hours of Thunderhill.

Program manager Darren Law and team veteran Johannes van Overbeek are back, with past Lizard drivers Dion von Moltke and Mike Hedlund set to replace Guy Cosmo and Tomonobu Fujii as the other two drivers.

The Toyo Lizard Audi dominated last year’s race, winning overall by some 35 laps.

“We look forward to the challenges of this year’s 25-Hours, and are returning to prove once again that Toyo Proxes Slicks are the tires to have for drivers looking to dominate in any form of road racing,” said Marc Sanzenbacher, senior manager, motorsports, Toyo Tire U.S.A. Corp.

“The race conditions at this event are notoriously unpredictable and we welcome the various technical challenges it presents our engineers. We have some new cool weather and intermediate rain tire options to evaluate for this event and we look forward to gathering important development data while pursuing another overall victory.”


Meanwhile on Friday, Flying Lizard has also confirmed a two-car GTS class entry in Pirelli World Challenge with longtime manufacturer Porsche.

As part of that class and series’ new GT4-spec wave in the category – it will be all GT4-spec in 2018 with a final one-year run for existing previous non-GT4 machinery – Flying Lizard will run two of the new Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport MR entries. Those cars debuted at the season finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca this year with GMG Racing.

Flying Lizard’s continued relationship with Porsche Motorsport North America (PMNA) will strengthen the effort, becoming a part of the North American Young Driver Development program.

“This just feels right to see Flying Lizard Motorsports back again with a Porsche program,” said Program Manager Darren Law. “We have had so many successful and memorable races with Porsche. Much of my driving career has been with Flying Lizard Motorsports, so I am happy that we will have the opportunity to join forces with Porsche for the upcoming season.”