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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.

NHRA: Brittany Force (Top Fuel), Tommy Johnson Jr. (Funny Car) star in 4-day test in Phoenix

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If this past weekend’s Nitro Fuel test in suburban Phoenix is any indication, we’re likely to see a number of speed and elapsed time records set in Top Fuel and Funny Car in the 2016 season.

The four-day preseason test at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park saw a number of drivers show invigorated performance in both elapsed time and speed.

The most notable performances in Top Fuel came from 8-time champ Tony Schumacher, Dave Connolly and Doug Kalitta.

But it was Brittany Force, daughter of 16-time Funny Car champ John Force, who may have stolen the show in its entirety.

Brittany Force had the first (3.721 seconds at 319.07 mph), fourth (3.747/322.81) and sixth (3.758/317.64) quickest runs in Saturday’s final day of testing. In addition, Force had the fifth and sixth quickest runs (both at 3.721 seconds) of the entire four days.

In a sense, Brittany Force’s performance wasn’t a complete surprise. She has 11-time Top Fuel champion owner or crew chief Alan Johnson – and most importantly, Johnson’s celebrated equipment and motors – now behind her.

And how that improvement showed during the test.

Johnson and driver Shawn Langdon won last year’s season-opening race. And if her overall performance at Phoenix is any indication, Brittany Force could potentially follow in Langdon’s shoes and earn her first career Top Fuel win in the 2016 season-opening Circle K NHRA Winternationals, Feb. 11-14 at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California.

“I am definitely glad we are here in Phoenix testing,” Force said in a media release. “We were here for four days and I needed every single run that we made to make me feel more comfortable.

“Teaming up with Alan Johnson and Brian Husen as my crew chief has been great. They have made a lot of changes to this Monster Energy dragster. They run a whole different system that what we used to run. It takes some time to adjust to that and I am learning the car. It is starting to feel like home. … I am ready to get to Pomona.”

Schumacher had the quickest run of the four-day test (3.683 seconds/325.37 mph), followed by Connolly (3.714/330.15 mph) and Kalitta (3.716/327.35 mph). Schumacher also had the fourth-best run of the test (3.718/320.58 mph).

In Funny Car, Tommy Johnson Jr. saved the best for last, recording the quickest speed of the overall test on Saturday (3.874 seconds at 318.47 mph).

Had the test been a national event, Johnson would have set a record for quickest run ever in Funny Car. Matt Hagan holds the official record of 3.879 seconds, set at Brainerd, Minnesota last season.

“We had our entire team stay intact after last year and we have sort of picked up where we left off last year,” Johnson said. “The crew worked really hard during the offseason and I am just happy for the guys to make a run like that to close out testing. It’s a good reward for them for all their hard work.”

Other Funny Car drivers that shined on Saturday included Robert Hight (a career-best 3.885 seconds at an overall test-best speed of 329.34 mph and another run of 3.931/323.43 mph), Courtney Force (3.890/323.89 mph and 3.915/323.74 mph), John Force (3.914/327.35 mph, 3.927/323.66 mph and 3.930/328.14 mph) and Ron Capps (3.919/320.66 mph).

“I believe with how we finished the end of the year at Pomona what we learned here is going to make us so much better when we get back to Pomona,” Hight said.” I am so excited to get to the Winternationals. “We made career best runs here and we are in the ballgame.”

Added team owner John Force, “We have had a lot of change over the past couple of years but now I am focused on winning and getting the most out of all these race teams.”

* * *

Below are the quickest performances in both Top Fuel and Funny Car from Saturday at NHRA Nitro Spring Training:

TOP FUEL
3.721, 319.07 – Brittany Force
3.739, 288.87 – Clay Millican
3.745, 325.53 – Doug Kalitta
3.747, 322.81 – Brittany Force
3.748, 319.22 – Richie Crampton
3.758, 317.64 – Brittany Force
3.768, 297.88 – Antron Brown
3.770, 316.08 – Shawn Langdon
3.791, 320.13 – Antron Brown
3.802, 325.69 – J.R. Todd
3.839, 272.72 – Leah Pritchett
3.882, 251.67 – J.R. Todd
3.916, 256.75 – Terry McMillen
3.929, 255.00 – Troy Buff
3.935, 306.05 – Terry McMillen
4.123, 242.19 – Troy Buff

FUNNY CAR
3.874, 318.47 – Tommy Johnson Jr.
3.885, 329.34 – Robert Hight
3.890, 323.89 – Courtney Force
3.914, 327.35 – John Force
3.915, 323.74 – Courtney Force
3.919, 320.66 – Ron Capps
3.927, 323.66 – John Force
3.930, 328.14 – John Force
3.931, 323.43 – Robert Hight
3.962, 326.79 – Matt Hagan
3.972, 320.51 – Alexis DeJoria
3.982, 289.57 – Jack Beckman
3.983, 320.81 – Del Worsham
3.987, 319.29 – Ron Capps
3.993, 322.58 – Alexis DeJoria
3.999, 320.97 – Del Worsham
4.008, 273.94 – Cruz Pedregon
4.015, 316.01 – Brian Hough
4.070, 273.39 – Del Worsham
4.153, 252.24 – Jim Campbell
4.211, 225.60 – Matt Hagan

* * *

Below are the top 10 quickest runs overall in each category from the four-day test session:

TOP FUEL
3.721, 319.07 – Brittany Force
3.739, 288.87 – Clay Millican
3.745, 325.53 – Doug Kalitta
3.747, 322.81 – Brittany Force
3.748, 319.22 – Richie Crampton
3.758, 317.64 – Brittany Force
3.768, 297.88 – Antron Brown
3.770, 316.08 – Shawn Langdon
3.791, 320.13 – Antron Brown
3.802, 325.69 – J.R. Todd
3.839, 272.72 – Leah Pritchett
3.882, 251.67 – J.R. Todd
3.916, 256.75 – Terry McMillen
3.929, 255.00 – Troy Buff
3.935, 306.05 – Terry McMillen
4.123, 242.19 – Troy Buff

FUNNY CAR
1.  3.874, 318.47 – Tommy Johnson Jr.
2. 3.880, 325.77 – Jack Beckman
3. 3.885, 329.34 – Robert Hight
4. 3.890, 323.89 – Courtney Force
5. 3.894, 327.03 – Jack Beckman
6. 3.895, 325.06 – Jack Beckman
7. 3.904, 318.54 – Courtney Force
8. 3.912, 324.20 – John Force
9. 3.913, 326.16 – Robert Hight
10. 3.914, 327.35 – John Force

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McLaren GT captures major endurance win at Bathurst 12 Hour

BATHURST, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 07: Race winner Shane van Gisbergen driver of the #59 Tekno Autosport McLaren 650S crosses the finish line to win the Bathurst 12 Hour Race at Mount Panorama on February 7, 2016 in Bathurst, Australia.  (Photo by Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images)
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There’s nothing to prove that Shane van Gisbergen isn’t actually a freak of nature with a big beard and a bigger right foot.

The man known as “The Giz” – the Australian V8 Supercars ace and McLaren GT factory driver – played an integral role in McLaren GT capturing a major endurance victory for the first time in more than 20 years, as he co-drove with Alvaro Parente and Jonathan Webb to secure the win in the Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hour race in the No. 59 Tekno Autosports McLaren 650S GT3.

Van Gisbergen stole the headlines and the track record with a best time of 2:01.286 around Mount Panorama on Friday to capture the Allan Simonsen Pole Trophy.

“SVG” then walked the field in the early hours of Saturday’s (Sunday in Australia) race before electrical gremlins ground Parente to a halt after he got in, and cost them about 45 seconds.

Nevertheless, a near faultless drive from there – plus an abnormal strategy the rest of the way that eventually led to needing less time in the pits for the final stop – helped deliver the victory. For good measure, van Gisbergen added a 2:01.567 lap in the race itself.

Nissan, which won the race last year, finished second with a lineup of Katsumasa Chiyo, Florian Strauss and Rick Kelly in their Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3. The “Bentley Boys” made it on the podium with Guy Smith, Steven Kane and (British) Matt Bell in their Bentley Continental GT3.

The win is the first marquee endurance race victory for McLaren since its 1995 overall triumph at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, with the McLaren F1 GTR.

Sauber’s C35 chassis passes crash test

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 28:  Marcus Ericsson of Sweden and Sauber F1 drives during final practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 28, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Sauber has confirmed its new nose and chassis of the C35 has passed the mandatory FIA crash test, in both static and dynamic settings.

Prior to today, Sauber was one of two teams – McLaren the other one – that had yet to confirm it had passed the crash test. The McLaren, in theory, should come in due course.

A good summary by F1 technical analyst Craig Scarborough is linked in the below tweet:

While the new chassis is good to go for Sauber, it won’t be running yet at the first test at Barcelona from February 22 to 25.

The team confirmed, via its website, that the 2015 C34 chassis will run for the first four-day test before the C35 makes its maiden run from March 1 through 4 at the second Barcelona test.

The team’s 2016 livery, however, will be revealed at the first test.

Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr are set to return for their second season as teammates; for Ericsson, it’s his third season in the sport while Nasr prepares for his sophomore campaign.

Busy week of testing ahead for IndyCar teams out West

AVONDALE, AZ - MARCH 15:  Ccars race during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series CampingWorld.com 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on March 15, 2015 in Avondale, Arizona.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
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The old saying “Go West, young man” is apropos for the Verizon IndyCar Series this week, ahead of a busy week of testing for teams and drivers at three key tracks on the left coast.

The action starts today with seven drivers from three teams out at Phoenix International Raceway.

Team Penske’s fearless foursome of Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud will join now Ed Carpenter Racing’s Carpenter and Josef Newgarden, and KVSH Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais for a Chevrolet manufacturer test.

Others such as Tony Kanaan, Graham Rahal, James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti have been out in Phoenix already this offseason. “TK” and Rahal tested for Firestone, with “Hinch,” “RHR” and Andretti out there in a Honda test in November.

Here’s some buildup to the test on social media:

On the team plane to Phoenix… First time in car for 16

A photo posted by Will Power (@12willpower) on

The latter post appears to be a teaser of Newgarden’s temporary Fuzzy’s Vodka colors on what will be his No. 21 Chevrolet.

Meanwhile on Wednesday, the other four-car powerhouse in the series – Chip Ganassi Racing – will have a four-car test of its own.

New signing Max Chilton is set to join the usual trio of Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Charlie Kimball, with the Englishman set for his first test in an IndyCar at Sonoma Raceway.

Chilton, who’s been in the U.S. for media day and then stayed in the run up to Sonoma as he prepares for his debut, has been taking in the sights and sounds of San Francisco.

Honda won’t be devoid of testing this week as down the road in Fontana, Calif., at Auto Club Speedway, Hinchcliffe, Hunter-Reay and Carlos Munoz will be doing a Honda manufacturer test day on the 2.0-mile oval. While the track won’t see an IndyCar race this year, it remains a good testing location.

Chilton will also have his oval rookie test later this week at the same track, on Saturday. The Englishman failed to start at Indianapolis due to a fuel cell issue, but then promptly won his second oval start at Iowa within the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires.

Sonoma was one of the few tracks Chilton didn’t learn from his training within the Mazda Road to Indy, but he should pick it up pretty easily.