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.

Bourdais hopes last year’s crash turns into Indy 500 Cinderella story on Sunday

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Sebastien Bourdais has relived his May 20, 2017 crash during Indianapolis 500 qualifying over and over in his mind, day after day, week after week and month after month.

He would think of the worst crash of his open-wheel racing career at least once — if not several times — a day, particularly when he’d experience a slight twinge of pain.

“I think about it every day,” Bourdais told MotorSportsTalk. “Even though I’m functionally 100 percent now, it’s still very rare that during the day that there’s not a little pinch or something that reminds me of what happened.”

But this past weekend while qualifying for this year’s 500, one year later, the French driver said he was finally able to work past the mental roadblock that just would not leave his mind.

The solution was simple: complete the task he wasn’t able to do so last year, namely, qualifying for the race – and qualifying well.

Bourdais will start fifth in Sunday’s 102nd Running of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing, in the middle of Row 2.

“(Last year’s crash is) still in my mind,” Bourdais said. “But I think the biggest hurdle, at least mentally, was qualifying last weekend, putting yourself back in the same set of circumstances, going back on the line there.

“It felt a little bit the same, chances of rain, some rain, delays, you get back in line, conditions change, everything gets harder because it gets hotter, but that’s the biggest hurdle to overcome. After that, it’s back to business.”

Bourdais has already won once in 2018 – the season-opening race in his adopted hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida.

It helped jump start him to a strong overall run in the first five races of the season, including a fourth-place showing two weeks ago at the INDYCAR Grand Prix of Indianapolis, coupled with entering the 500 third in the Verizon IndyCar Series standings.

Now, he wants to win the biggest race of his career. If he does so, he’ll feel as if he finally and completely has come full circle from last year’s devastating wreck that shattered his pelvis, going head-on into the Turn 2 wall at a reported 228 mph.

“Well, it’s the Holy Grail of IndyCar, it doesn’t really get any bigger than that,” Bourdais said of the 500. “It’s the biggest achievement that you can accomplish in IndyCar.

“I don’t think I’m any different than anybody else: we all want to win it pretty bad, but I’m sure after what happened after last year, it’d be a Cinderella story.”

But there’s a caveat to Bourdais writing that story: “There’s 32 other drivers that want to accomplish the same thing, and it’s a one day event. We’ll give it our best shot … you can only give your very best and see what happens on that given day.”

Bourdais has a lot going for him heading into Sunday. First off, he’ll start from the highest qualifying position he’s ever had in what will be the seventh Indy 500 of the 39-year-old’s racing career.

Second, his confidence and comfort level are higher than they’ve ever been coming into the annual classic at the 2.5-mile Brickyard oval.

Third, he’s forgiven himself – not IMS – for what happened last year. He has no ill feeling towards the racetrack, nor does he seek revenge. If he were to start thinking that way, it would serve no positive purpose.

“No. I’m not really that way,” he said when asked if he wants revenge over the racetrack. “The track didn’t beat me up, I beat myself.

“The bottom line is there were a couple of reasons why it happened, but I got more comfortable and more confident and confidence and comfort at some point just bite you at Indy.

“You just do your laps, you get into such a rhythm and the week had gone perfectly with an awesome car and there was not a doubt in my mind it was going to stick (going into Turn 2), and that’s when it happened – and I paid the price.”

So, Bourdais is simply going to go out and race, again, hoping to complete what he started last year before being so painfully derailed.

His best finish to date in the 500 has been seventh (2014). He just needs for his Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser – Sullivan Honda to finish six places higher on Sunday.

And if he does, his move to Dale Coyne Racing last year – he’s competed in 13 of 23 races with two wins, 3 podiums and one pole – would only serve to make what already has proven to be a great move into a potentially brilliant move.

Because, yes, Bourdais isn’t just thinking Indy 500 win, he’s also thinking of a potential championship this season.

“I sure hope so,” Bourdais said when asked if his team’s success will continue. “I like to say it’s (the success that the Coyne camp has had since he came there) a little bit of my baby, bringing in Craig (engineer Craig Hampson) and Olivier (race engineer Olivier Boisson) and reinforcing the existing crew.”

Bourdais is no stranger to winning championships. He won four straight combined titles in CART and the Champ Car World Series from 2004 through 2007 (he also won 28 races in that four-year span).

“Obviously, it’s one thing to get into a winning team and basically meet expectations,” Bourdais said. “It’s another thing to try and build something and change the status of the underdog and turn him into a contender week in and week out.

“We got a glimpse of that last year, and this year, we’ve been competitive every weekend so far, and that’s a great feeling. Once you’re able to be competitive on street course, road courses, short ovals and superspeedways, then you can start saying and thinking championship.”

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