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.

Azerbaijan GP red flagged after 22 laps following chaotic sequence

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The Azerbaijan Grand Prix has been red flagged for debris following a chaotic sequence of laps that saw three safety cars be deployed following multiple incidents, leaving the track covered in debris.

The first safety car was called after Daniil Kvyat stopped out on-track, with the marshals able to recover it with relative ease, but the bunched field on the restart soon descended into chaos.

Debris from Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari caused a second safety car period to be called within a lap, but the marshals were again able to clear this easily, allowing Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton to lead the field away for the second restart.

Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel made contact twice behind the safety car, leaving debris on-track at Turn 15, with both drivers blaming each other for the incident.

The greater clashes came on the first lap of green flag running as Force India teammates Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon clashes at Turn 3, the latter bumping Perez into the wall. Both were required to pit for repairs, and while Ocon could get back out, Perez was less fortunate, retiring from the race.

A third safety car was called, with the stewards then deciding to throw a red flag to allow the debris on the track to be cleared.

More to follow…

Hunter-Reay leads warmup at Road America

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A weekend that has been dominated by Chevrolet and Team Penske so far saw Honda jump to the top during morning warmup. Ryan Hunter-Reay was fastest for Andretti Autosport, followed by Max Chilton for Chip Ganassi Racing. Hunter-Reay’s teammate Alexander Rossi ended the session third, making it a Honda 1-2-3 in the morning warmup.

Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud was the quickest of the Chevrolet camp in fourth, followed by A.J. Foyt Racing’s Carlos Munoz in fifth.

Only 19 of the 21 drivers turned laps during the session, with Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon and Andretti Autosport’s Takuma Sato failing to put laps in. Dixon’s No. 9 NTT Data Honda was suffering from fuel pressure problems that kept it in the garage, while Sato was feeling under the weather during the morning, and the No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda team elected not to go out.

Coverage of the Kohler Grand Prix begins at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

 

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

Nato takes F2 sprint win in Baku after Leclerc penalty

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Norman Nato picked up his first win of the 2017 FIA Formula 2 season on Sunday after a post-race penalty denied Charles Leclerc a weekend double in Baku.

Ferrari junior Leclerc took an emotional victory on Saturday just days after the death of his father, and charged from P8 on the reverse grid to take the lead from Nato late on.

However, the Monegasque driver was denied the first perfect weekend in the category (including GP2) in eight years when he was hit with a 10-second time penalty for failing to slow under yellow flags.

Despite the penalty, Leclerc was still classified second behind Nato, with Nicholas Latifi completing the podium for DAMS.

Jordan King took fourth place for MP Motorsport, while Sergey Sirotkin was fifth on his stand-in weekend at ART Grand Prix ahead of fellow Russian Artem Markelov.

Nobuharu Matsushita took seventh ahead of Luca Ghiotto, while Ralph Boschung and Sergio Sette Camara rounded out the top 10.

With second place, Leclerc extended his F2 championship lead to 42 points after chief title rival Oliver Rowland retired after leading the early part of the race.

The F2 season resumes in two weeks’ time in support of the Austrian Grand Prix in Spielberg.

Lauda on Hamilton’s Baku pole lap: ‘I’ve never seen anything like it’

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Formula 1 legend and Mercedes non-executive director Niki Lauda was quick to heap praise on Lewis Hamilton after qualifying in Azerbaijan on Saturday, saying he had “never seen anything like” the Briton’s Q3 pole lap.

Hamilton charged to the 66th pole of his F1 career at the Baku City Circuit on Saturday after a last-ditch effort took his four-tenths of a second clear of Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas.

Hamilton was overjoyed by the lap, having struggled to tame the Baku circuit during its inaugural race in 2016, and three-time world champion Lauda was equally as impressed.

“We had some problems on Friday, but the team really did a fantastic job to set the car up in the right way. And Lewis with his lap today… I’ve never seen anything like it,” Lauda said, as quoted by the official F1 website.

“It was not plain sailing at all, but a lot of thinking, digging, back to the factory, and in the end the improvement the engineers and mechanics did to the car is outstanding.

“And then Lewis, what he did today, no one else I think can do that.

“He’s fantastic, especially thinking about his lap time here, because the difference he makes to everybody – it’s only Lewis.”

Hamilton will go in search of his fifth win of the season in Baku on Sunday, with coverage of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET.