TMS-Group

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.

Sprint car shocker: Steve ‘The King’ Kinser announces retirement

The legendary Steve "The King" Kinser announced his retirement from Sprint car racing Monday night.
(Official Twitter page of Knoxville Raceway)
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Sprint car fans knew it was eventually coming, but the timing of it still likely surprised many when legendary driver Steve “The King” Kinser announced Monday night that he was retiring.

What will likely be the last race of Kinser’s storied career came at Lebanon Valley Speedway in West Lebanon, New York, where he finished sixth in the main event.

In the following video, Kinser not only shocked the fans in attendance, but also clearly caught track public address announcer John Stanley completely off-guard with his revelation.

“We thought we’d make it one more time and I’m pretty sure this will be the last race I ever run right here tonight, the last race period,” Kinser said. “I hadn’t been running many (races) this year and was planning on quitting anyway.

“I’m never going to say never but I’m pretty positive I’m going to watch Kraig (his son, also a racer), go to races and have some fun.”

The 62-year-old resident of Bloomington, Indiana is a 20-time World of Outlaws champion (won a record 577 races in the series), as well as more recently a stalwart on the All Star Circuit of Champions sprint car series owned by NASCAR champion Tony Stewart.

It was a ASCoC event at Lebanon Valley where Kinser delivered his bombshell news, according to a report by National SpeedSport News.

The 12-time Knoxville Nationals champ, whose last full-time season in the WoO was in 2014, has been racing a limited schedule both last season and in 2016.

While his career has been primarily in Sprint cars, Kinser also raced in other series including five times in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series, raced in the 1997 Indianapolis 500 (finished 14th) and in the IROC and USAC series.

Naturally, the social media world was all atwitter – no pun intended – about Kinser’s bombshell announcement:

 

 

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Can Dixon, Kanaan, Castroneves still catch Pagenaud, Power for IndyCar crown?

Can Phoenix winner and defending IndyCar champ Scott Dixon, middle, catch Simon Pagenaud or Will Power for the IndyCar championship?
(Photos courtesy IndyCar)
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In Major League Baseball, the 4-5-6 batters are typically the meat of the batting order. It’s those three players that play one of the biggest parts in determining which team becomes the ultimate champion each season.

Now, 4-5-6 in the standings of the Verizon IndyCar Series is a bit of a different matter.

Sure, fourth-ranked Scott Dixon is a four-time IndyCar champ and Indianapolis 500 winner, fifth-ranked Helio Castroneves is a three-time Indy 500 winner, and sixth-ranked Tony Kanaan is both a series champion and Indy 500 winner.

That sounds like an IndyCar equivalent of baseball’s Murderer’s Row, right?

But following Monday’s weather-rescheduled ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway, the 4-5-6 drivers in the IndyCar Series rankings have three races left to hit nothing but home runs if they hope to throw a curveball into Simon Pagenaud’s and Will Power’s championship plans.

Six points separate the trio: Dixon has 386 points, 111 points short of Pagenaud (497 points, with Power a close second at 477 points). Castroneves has 384 (-113) and Kanaan has 380 (-117).

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Scott Dixon

And let’s not forget about Josef Newgarden, sitting third at 397 points, exactly 100 markers behind Pagenaud and 80 points in arrears to Power. But Newgarden will almost certainly drop out of realistic contention with a last-place finish looming at Texas Motor Speedway after he crashed out in June, and won’t be able to restart.

The respective finishes of Dixon (sixth), Kanaan (ninth) and Castroneves (19th) at Pocono also didn’t help their championship chances, because Power won. Pagenaud failed to finish but still looms far ahead.

Right now, a maximum of 211 points is up for grabs in the remaining three races. That breaks down to 50 points each to the winner at Texas and Watkins Glen, and double points (100) to the winner of the season finale at Sonoma.

There’s also one point for the pole winner in each of the final three races, although Carlos Munoz will get that point at Texas since he got the pole there back in June.

In addition, each of the three remaining races – as all others – awards one point if a driver leads at least one lap and two points to the driver who leads the most laps.

With his win Monday, Power earned almost the maximum amount of points at Pocono, capturing 51 of a possible 54. Pagenaud, who finished 18th, earned just 13 points, allowing Power to cut Pagenaud’s lead in the standings by 38 points, more than half of what it was coming into the race (58 points).

Dixon climbed one position, from fifth to fourth, with his Pocono finish. But he knows time is running to defend last year’s championship – particularly with this being the last year for him with Target sponsorship.

Here’s what Dixon had to say after Pocono:

“We started in the rear of the field and that didn’t help our cause with the Target team. We got held up in the second to last restart and some lapped cars didn’t go when they should have and that really cost us in terms of track position for sure. We clawed our way back into the mix but with so many good cars out there it was hard to get all the way to the front to contend.”

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Tony Kanaan

Kanaan slipped slightly in the standings from fifth to sixth after his Pocono finish.

Here’s what Kanaan had to say afterwards:

“We just couldn’t catch a break during the race. Every time we’d make a run toward the front, something would go wrong. We had a mechanical issue that was affecting the fuel system and that caused a lot of problems for us. Then we lost a piece of our rear bumper pod that caused that last yellow. It just wasn’t our day.”

Lastly, Castroneves had a performance Monday that he’d rather forget. While he started strong (fourth), he was involved in a scary pit road crash not of his doing when Alexander Rossi and Charlie Kimball made contact.

Rossi, this year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, bounced off Kimball’s car and ran over the top of Castroneves’ car as he was trying to leave his pit stall.

The tires on Rossi’s car made visible marks on the top of the cockpit of Castroneves’ car and then the car continued until it had climbed over and landed back on the pavement on all four wheels. Castroneves suffered a slight bruise to his right hand but was otherwise uninjured in the scary mishap.

But his hand isn’t the thing that really hurt. Castroneves’ resulting 19th place finish saw him drop from third to fifth in the standings. Given that he’s 117 points behind Pagenaud and 97 behind Power, his Team Penske teammate, Castroneves’ hopes for his elusive first career IndyCar championship are slim, indeed – unless perhaps he wins each of the next three races.

And that still may not be enough to win it all if Pagenaud and/or Power have strong finishes in at least two of those last three.

One thing’s for certain: neither Castroneves nor Dixon or Kanaan are giving up.

Here’s what Castroneves had to say about Monday’s race, the pit road incident, as well as moving on to Texas:

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Helio Castroneves

“Inside the car, I was actually more protected than what it looked like. Sometime people don’t realize the Verizon IndyCar Series are so much about safety and today is the proof of that.

“Very glad that nobody got hurt. It’s just a shame. The Hitachi Chevy was really having a good day and we just had another good pit stop when I was coming out of the pits.

“All of a sudden there was a car on top of me. It was a little strange to be honest. The Team Penske guys worked really hard to try and fix the car but there was a lot of damage.

“It’s certainly unfortunate because this will hurt us in the championship battle but our team will never give up. We’ll move on to Texas where, fortunately, we’ve had a lot of success.”

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Carpenter’s hope for oval resurgence once again goes round in circles

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(Photo courtesy of Chris Jones/IndyCar)
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Just when he was hoping for a dramatic improvement, Ed Carpenter’s season of discontent behind the wheel continues.

The owner of Ed Carpenter Racing had high hopes for a strong finish in Monday’s weather-rescheduled ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway.

Running his usual schedule of ovals only, Carpenter qualified a respectable 10th at Pocono and had a car that in practice looked like it could be a top-10 finisher in the actual race itself.

But for the third time in his four oval races this season (Phoenix, Indianapolis, Iowa and Pocono), Carpenter and his No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet came up short due to an unspecified mechanical issue that knocked him out of the race just 57 laps into the 200-lap event.

At Phoenix, Carpenter had his best qualifying effort of the season (fifth) and managed to complete 195 of 200 laps before crashing and finishing 21st.

In the Indianapolis 500, he started 20th and finished 31st in the 33-car field when an oxygen sensor went bad just two laps from the midpoint of the 200-lap race.

Carpenter had his best outing of the year at Iowa, finishing 18th. However, he finished just 284 of the race’s 300 laps with another mechanical issue occurring on a pit stop and a bunch of time lost. The gear cluster needed to be changed.

And then came Pocono on Monday, another outcome that left Carpenter disappointed.

“Ed Carpenter Racing has performed so awesome this year and the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka car can’t catch a break,” Carpenter said after Monday’s race. “I haven’t finished a full race this season.

“I made one mistake at Phoenix, but other than that we’ve just had things happen. Some of it shouldn’t have happened and could have been avoided, so there’s just a lot of frustration.”

Carpenter has one more oval race left on his schedule: this Saturday’s resumption of the rain-delayed race at Texas Motor Speedway.

“This is one of my last two races this year and I felt really good coming into (Monday),” Carpenter said of Pocono. “I’m not going to comment on what happened specifically, it won’t do any good to talk about it out in the open. It’s just frustrating.”

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Pocono is best superspeedway finish for Bourdais since IndyCar return

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Since returning to the Verizon IndyCar Series part-time in 2011 and full-time in 2013, French driver Sebastien Bourdais has four wins in 87 starts and eight podium finishes.

But in all of those starts, Bourdais had never scored a top-five on a superspeedway.

His best finish at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway was seventh in 2014. His best finish on Fontana’s 2-miler was 12th in 2013.

And prior to Monday, his best finish at Pocono Raceway’s 2.5-mile “tricky triangle” was 16th (2013 and 2014).

But in Monday’s weather-delayed ABC Supply 500, Bourdais achieved a career-best performance on a superspeedway, as his No. 11 Team Hydroxycut KVSH Racing Chevrolet finished fifth.

Bourdais qualified 18th but was fourth-quickest in race trim in the final practice before Monday’s rescheduled race. While he started slow, he methodically worked his way up through the field until he cracked the top-10 on Lap 91 of the 200-lap, 500-mile event.

On Lap 177, Bourdais and his team gambled on their final pit stop. Instead of a full service stop, the team went with only fuel and not tires.

That moved Bourdais up to second place from seventh and his second win of 2016 (first was Belle Isle 1) appeared a strong possibility.

While the gamble worked in theory, it was foiled by a glitch in the computer blend line software, which erroneously placed Bourdais in third on the ensuing restart.

When the green flag fell, Bourdais had a slow restart and fell back two more spots to fifth. He briefly climbed back to forth, but eventual third-place finisher Ryan Hunter-Reay passed him, relegating Bourdais to where he’d ultimately finish: in fifth.

“It was a pretty good day for the Hydroxycut – KVSH Racing Team,” Bourdais said after the race. “We took some penalties with long pit stops to set the car up early on, but even though we were marginal on front grip we were running a pretty solid race.

“We passed Dixie (Scott Dixon), passed Kanaan (Tony), passed some Penskes, not the top one, but when you do that, things are going pretty good. Then you end up finishing fifth after there was some computer confusion about our position on the restart.”

Bourdais remains 14th in the IndyCar point standings, but Monday’s finish was his eighth top-10 showing in the first 13 races of the season.

“Overall, you have to consider that it was a great day,” Bourdais said of Pocono. “It was definitely our strongest showing on a super speedway.

“We learned something this weekend, something we have been missing. The crew did a really good job and the Hydroxycut Chevy machine was really strong. So I am really happy with the result.”

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