IndyCar field brings ‘pack race’ term back to vernacular at Texas

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Infrequently since the introduction of the Dallara DW12 chassis (IR-12 in technical terms per INDYCAR) ahead of the 2012 IndyCar Series season, have the words “pack racing” been thrown around.

With a significant reduction in the number of 1.5-mile race tracks left on the schedule – just Texas Motor Speedway stands alone as the remaining 1.5-miler on the Verizon IndyCar Series calendar – and the combination of an older track and a significant tire falloff occurring over the course of a stint, the ingredients for a pack race have not been thrown around.

But in what was the closest element of a “pack race” in recent years, the combination of a repaved Texas track that was grippier than normal and the fact the new Firestone tires brought this weekend didn’t fall off as much as they had in the past over the course of the stint brought the “pack race” term back to the vernacular. Once blistering started occurring on some cars though, the decision was made to implement in-race competition cautions on safety grounds after 30 lap segments of green flag running.

Drivers ran close all night with the second groove coming into play after all, as first shown by Tristan Vautier and then by others over the course of the 248-lap Rainguard Water Sealers 600 race. Attempts at three-wide running didn’t work; Mikhail Aleshin was on the high side when James Hinchcliffe and Tony Kanaan collided and Josef Newgarden’s attempt at running the highest line later in the race also ended in the wall.

A number of crashes followed, with the nine-car accident on Lap 152 serving as the most intense moment of the race. Fortunately there were no broken bones or airborne cars, but there were a lot of frustrated drivers and heavy repair bills that came out of Saturday night’s race.

Race winner Will Power said he’d told the series in advance that a pack race was possible based on the new conditions for this Texas race.

“I mean, I sold the series, next to Jay Frye, this will be an absolute pack race. I didn’t say whether it was good or bad, I absolutely knew it would be a pack race,” Power said in the post-race press conference. There was no doubt in my mind. Anyone who didn’t — I mean, the first time we ran here, I said, yeah, this will be a pack race. Yeah.

“I like tire degradation so at least you can work on the car. It’s fine to do that for the first half of the stint, you know, 10 laps, but I think there needs to be a bit of falloff to create some separation because it gets — you know, when we’re doing it every week, people got good at it, and need to give some respect and understood it.

“I mean, when you’re leading, it’s the easiest night. Until you’re leading, the last 10 laps or six, you’re driving around wide open. The tire never fell off. And I always said that, like the easiest day of your life if you lead a pack race. The easiest day of your life.”

Team Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud said he’d also called it where the second groove would come in, when speaking to USA Today sports reporter Brant James.

“After qually I actually talked to Brant James and we talked about how the race was going to play and exactly what I thought was going to happen,” Pagenaud said. “We were able to run second lane on a dusty track already, so I thought it was good fun.

“I thought it was good racing. Yes, it was some pack racing. You didn’t have to pedal the car all that much. You still had to chase it with the setup, but you couldn’t get away with a good car. That’s the only disappointing part, but I thought for the fans it was a great show.

“Now it’s our responsibility as drivers to respect the others and not unplug the brain completely at times. It’s our responsibility to know that someone on your side — not to crash into them. To me that’s where I would leave it at. That’s the bottom line.”

Kanaan, who was in the eye of the storm from the competitors, said IndyCar should race at Texas but shouldn’t be racing the way they all did on Saturday.

“I think it’s pretty obvious we can’t. I mean, what you have — five cars finished the race, six cars?” he said. “I mean, plus in our type of cars, we can’t do that. That’s my opinion. I mean, I know people will agree and people will disagree with me, but it was a new track. They did a great job — this track, back in the days, with the rain that we got two days ago we probably wouldn’t even be racing here today, so great job that they changed the layout and actually I thought it was going to be different.

“It was our first race back because of the construction we didn’t really have a lot of time to test here. Yeah, man, this is my opinion. I don’t think we should be doing this the way it is. We should be coming to Texas. The fans are great. This track is awesome. But I think we should change the format a little bit. How, I don’t know, we’ve got to figure it out.”

Detroit double winner Graham Rahal, who finished fourth, added,  “It was a crazy night with a lot of guys taking a lot of chances. After Indy and after this race, drivers need to have to take a deep breath and realize that this is dangerous stuff. I’m glad that our car doesn’t have a ding on it.”

Those were among the lucky ones who escaped Texas unscathed but for the 16 other drivers caught up in incidents – 15 accidents and one mechanical (the luckless Charlie Kimball, who retired early with an oil leak from his first career pole) – the words weren’t minced.

“Tony (Kanaan) has more experience in this kind of pack racing than anybody,” Hinchcliffe said. “I went wheel-to-wheel with him last year for the win and nine times out of 10 would do that all day long, but for whatever reason, he wasn’t playing very nice today and wrecked a lot of good equipment. It turned into way more of a pack race than we’ve had here in a long time, which unfortunately, leads to situations like this.”

“I thought we could make it three lanes up there,” said Aleshin, who was three-wide and got collected following contact between Hinchcliffe and Kanaan in that Lap 152 pileup. “I didn’t understand what was going on, because I gave space to them, but something was going on with James and Kanaan. In the end, you know, what we have is two great cars that ended up in the wall and that’s just dumb. It’s stupid and I’m very disappointed in regards to the shape of the team this weekend.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay, who was also in the pileup, added, “There were guys making too many moves out there late into the corner. I will save my opinion for after I look at it. I came down, there were cars spinning and sparks everywhere. I went for the apron, I kind of high-sided a bit, and I was just a passenger from there. There was no where to go. You can’t jump all over the brakes from these cars once you are doing 220mph into the corner, there’s not a whole lot of places to go.”

Ed Carpenter said, “It was a wild night. We overcame a lot of adversity. First the spin – I was hoping for a spin and win! – and then got caught up in that big one. But there’s no quit in Ed Carpenter Racing. As many cars as were crashed out, we figured we’d patch it back up and salvage some points. You collect points all year long and you never know what a night like tonight might do at the end of the year for the entrant championship standings for both the No. 20 and the No. 21.”

Conor Daly, who finished a season-best seventh for AJ Foyt Racing, summed it up: “That was crazy. I think the biggest thing tonight is that I learned a lot. That was the first time ever on an oval that I raced side-by-side or that close to anyone. (Indianapolis Motor Speedway) we’re never like that and last year I didn’t make it through much of the race.”

The Verizon IndyCar Series has a needed week off next weekend after five consecutive on-track weekends (three at Indianapolis, Detroit doubleheader and Texas), although Andretti Autosport and Dale Coyne Racing, and perhaps one other team, are scheduled to test Wednesday at Road America. For all teams, the thrash to rebuild cars begins once they get home after an expensive night under the lights.

INDYCAR: Patricio O’Ward turns heads in Carlin debut

Chris Jones / IndyCar
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While the top story coming out of Sunday’s IndyCar Classic at Circuit of the Americas is undoubtedly 18-year-old Colton Herta’s victory in only his third IndyCar start, another teenager made quite some noise during the first IndyCar race at the facility.

19-year-old Patricio O’Ward made an impressive start to his 2019 IndyCar campaign by starting and finishing in eighth position. It was the first of his 13 races this season for Carlin Racing.

“I think it was a pretty good race for us. We ended exactly where we started and didn’t go backwards, so I’d say that was a successful day” O’Ward said. “I know the No. 31 Carlin Chevrolet had a top-five finish in it today and even though we couldn’t make it happen, it’s nice to know that we have the pace and can be fighting up front with the veteran drivers.”

O’Ward, the 2018 Indy Lights champ, made his series debut for Harding Steinbrenner Racing at last year’s season finale at Sonoma Raceway, where he made it to the Firestone Fast Six in qualifying and finished ninth. O’Ward was scheduled to race for the team full-time in 2019, but left in early February to pursue other options due to a lack of sponsorship.

Pato found a new home with Carlin, and despite missing preseason testing, he proved to be competitive from the get go and pressured some of IndyCar’s more tenured drivers, including Graham Rahal.

In what was undoubtedly the most daring move of the race, O’Ward ended a great battle with Rahal by hitting a superb outside pass on Lap 15.

O’Ward may have likely earned a better result on Sunday, if he didn’t have to save fuel in order to make the finish.

But with only two IndyCar starts to his credit, he is already racing like a seasoned veteran. Sunday’s IndyCar Classic may be the first of many successful outings for him this year.

After the race, he tweeted to his team: “Well done gentlemen … This is only the beginning.”

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