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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.

Late yellow in Hungary Q3 leaves Ricciardo ‘pretty angry’

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 23:  Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing in the post qualifying press conference during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 23, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Daniel Ricciardo felt “pretty angry” after his final lap in qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix was ruined by a yellow flag.

Ricciardo spent the entirety of qualifying running towards the top of the timesheets as wet conditions prompted drivers to think on their feet with tire choice and the risks they took.

The track was dry enough for slicks by Q3, where Ricciardo sat third after his first run despite running wide at the final corner and nearly spinning.

The Australian geared up for a final run just before the checkered flag fell, only for a yellow flag shown following a spin for Fernando Alonso to force him to back off.

Ricciardo was left to settle for third on the grid, but thinks he could have been in the mix on the front row had he been able to finish his lap.

“I don’t know. We got hurt by the yellow as well,” Ricciardo said.

“I was pretty angry on that last lap because I was up a bit and I think it would have put me closer to pole.

“It would have been interesting without the yellow. I’m a little disappointed because it’s a ‘what could have been’.

“But at the same time I think the session went really well. I think in all conditions we were competitive.”

Qualifying ran for twice its usual length due to a mix of rain and red flags, with parts of the track remaining damp in Q3.

“It was crazy, you had to adapt quickly, when to go on to slicks in Q2,” Ricciardo said.

“Even just the little things like getting out of pit lane in Q2 on slick tires when it was so wet, sideways coming into Trun 1. It was fun. It was challenging.

“On the last corner in Q3, there was still a wet patch just next to the curb, it sort of sucked me in as I opened DRS as well.

“I was in for a little bit of a ride, but in the end, survived.”

The Hungarian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from 7am ET on Sunday.

Hamilton ‘not too disappointed’ despite having last Hungary Q3 run ruined

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, of Britain, steers his car during the qualifying session for Sunday's Formula One Hungary Grand Prix, at the Hungaroring racetrack, in Budapest, Hungary, Saturday, July 23, 2016. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)
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Lewis Hamilton says he is “not too disappointed” with second place on the grid for Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix despite having his final Q3 run ruined by a yellow flag.

Hamilton sat on provisional pole after his first flying lap in Q3, making the most of his slick tires after narrowly escaping elimination in Q2 on a drying circuit.

The Briton found a further four-tenths of a second in the first sector of his final lap, only to back off under yellow flags shown following a spin for Fernando Alonso at Turn 5.

The majority of drivers on their final hot lap were affected, but Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg managed to find more time in the final sector to snatch pole position away.

Despite being denied a sixth pole position in Hungary, Hamilton wasn’t too downbeat after qualifying, saying he did all he could.

“I don’t know how much Nico was up but I had the fastest first sector, I was four-tenths up,” Hamilton said.

“I felt good on that lap. A bit unfortunate with Fernando, but these things happen so I’m not really too disappointed.

“It was a tricky session. I did the best I could do.

“We still have a long race ahead of us tomorrow so I’ll give it everything I’ve got from there.”

The focus after qualifying is already on whether Rosberg did enough to slow under the yellow flags, although the stewards are yet to show any indication of investigating his lap.

The Hungarian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from 7am ET on Sunday.

WATCH: Lucas Oil Pro Motocross from Washougal

Photo credit: ProMotocross.com/Matt Rice
Photo credit: ProMotocross.com/Matt Rice
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Here are details and times for this weekend’s Lucas Oil Pro Motocross action from Spring Creek this weekend. Notes via an NBC Sports Group Press Box press release are below.

All streams are at motostream.nbcsports.com via NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports App.

LUCAS OIL PRO MOTOCROSS CHAMPIONSHIP – WASHOUGAL NATIONAL – SATURDAY AT 6:30 P.M. ET ON NBCSN

NBCSN presents Round 9 of the 2016 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship this weekend with the Washuougal National in Washougal, Wash., on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Ken Roczen continues to dominate the 450 Class standings this season, coming off his sixth sweep of the 2016 campaign in Millville, Minn., last weekend. The 2014 450 Class champion holds a 55-point lead over Eli Tomac with four rounds remaining. Jeremy Martin won in the 250 Class last weekend, but trails Cooper Webb by 44 points with four rounds to go.

Veteran play-by-play voice Jason Weigandt, analyst and two-time AMA Pro Motocross Champion Grant Langston, and pit reporter Georgia Lindsay will call this weekend’s action.

Date  Program Time (ET) Network
Sat., July 23 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Washougal – Practice 1 p.m. Streaming
Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Washougal – Moto 1s 4 p.m. MAVTV
Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Washougal – Moto 2s 6:30 p.m. NBCSN

 

Nico Rosberg snatches pole position in Hungarian GP qualifying epic

Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg, of Germany, steers his car during the qualifying session for Sunday's Formula One Hungary Grand Prix, at the Hungaroring racetrack, in Budapest, Hungary, Saturday, July 23, 2016. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)
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Nico Rosberg snatched pole position for the Hungarian Grand Prix away in dramatic fashion at the end of a mammoth qualifying session at the Hungaroring, edging out Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton.

The start of qualifying was delayed after heavy rain hit the area following final practice, drenching the track.

The safety car was sent out at regular intervals to monitor conditions before the track was deemed dry enough after a 20-minute wait, although just five minutes of running was possible before more rain resulted in another red flag.

Once the track had dried and the sun was out, running was able to resume, only for on-track incidents to result in a further three red flags in Q1 alone.

Q2 and Q3 proved to be less eventful affairs, the crescendo being a battle between Hamilton and Rosberg once again. Hamilton drew first blood in Q3, going three-tenths of a second faster than Rosberg with his first lap, only for the German to close to within a tenth before pitting for a fresh set to super-soft tires.

Hamilton was forced to back off on his final qualifying lap after a spin for Fernando Alonso, but Rosberg dodged the yellow flags, giving him the chance to improve through the final sector.

Rosberg picked up the mantle emphatically, going 0.143 seconds faster than Hamilton to take a shock pole position, his second in Hungary.

Hamilton was left lamenting more bad luck in second place, having gone four-tenths faster than Rosberg in the first sector before his lap was ruined.

Red Bull locked out the second row, Daniel Ricciardo leading from Max Verstappen, while Sebastian Vettel finished down in fifth as the sole Ferrari to make it through to the top 10.

Carlos Sainz Jr. matched his best qualifying of the season in P6 ahead of the McLaren duo of Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button, both of whom benefitted from the wet conditions to make it through to Q3. Nico Hulkenberg and Valtteri Bottas rounded out the top 10, both having been caught out by the yellow flag.

Haas’ hopes of making Q3 for the first time in F1 were dashed in a crazy 60-second period at the end of Q2 as drivers switched to slick tires. Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez both sat well inside the top 10 after their final laps, only for a flurry of improvements to leave them P11 and P15 on the grid.

Daniil Kvyat, Sergio Perez and Felipe Nasr also lost out, finishing 12th, 13th and 16th respectively, but Kimi Raikkonen was arguably the biggest loser. As the first man to take the checkered flag, Raikkonen sat P1. Less than a minute later, he was P14.

Renault’s hopes of building on its top-10 finish in FP3 were dashed as a late red flag in Q1 denied Jolyon Palmer and Kevin Magnussen the chance to make it through to Q2. Palmer finished 17th, two places ahead of Magnussen as the French team’s tough start to the year continued.

Felipe Massa and Marcus Ericsson were both casualties of the conditions in Q1, crashing out in separate incidents. Ericsson caused the second red flag after sliding off-track, while Massa made the switch to intermediate tires too early, resulting in a crash at Turn 4 that ended his qualifying. Massa and Ericsson will start 18th and 20th respectively.

Manor was unable to capitalize on the wet conditions in Q1 as Pascal Wehrlein and Rio Haryanto locked out the back row of the grid. Haryanto was responsible for the fourth and final red flag in Q1, his crash bringing the session to an early end.

The Hungarian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from 7am ET on Sunday.