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.

EXCLUSIVE: NHRA’s Don Schumacher, all 7 of his drivers to donate brains for concussion research

From left, DSR Top Fuel drivers Leah Pritchett, Antron Brown and Tony Schumacher. Photos courtesy Auto Imagery.
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In a collective large-scale move never before seen in motorsports or any other form of professional sports, NHRA drag racing team owner Don Schumacher and all seven of his drivers have pledged in writing to donate their brains upon death to the Concussion Legacy Foundation (CLF), NBCSports.com’s MotorSportsTalk has learned exclusively.

The pledges were all signed this afternoon at suburban Denver’s Bandimere Speedway, site of this weekend’s Dodge NHRA Mile-High Nationals.

Team owner Don Schumacher (in red shirt) and his seven Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers sign written pledges to donate their brains for concussion research Friday at Bandimere Speedway in suburban Denver.

Don Schumacher Racing is the second-most successful team overall in NHRA history, with 11 Top Fuel and five Funny Car championships, as well as over 300 combined nitro national event wins by all seven of its drivers (as well as retired driver Gary Scelzi).

This is the first time an NHRA driver, owner or team has announced they will donate their brains to science for further study on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which can only be detected and diagnosed after death.

However, more than 3,000 current and former athletes in other sports have already pledged their brains to research post-mortem, including NASCAR’s Dale Earnhardt Jr., U.S. Women’s Soccer Team star Brandi Chastain, and several former NFL Pro Bowlers including Randy Cross, Keith Sims, Shawn Springs and Gary Fencik.

MORE: Dale Earnhardt Jr. plans to donate his brain to CTE research

MORE: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s decision inspires NASCAR Hall of Famer to donate brain for CTE research

While concussions are not a widespread problem in the NHRA as in, for example, the NFL, they still happen from time to time.

With the g-forces, high-speed explosions and crashes and intense vibrations Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers endure while exceeding 330 mph in 1,000 feet, concussions are always a threat, but that threat is usually mitigated by the safety equipment found in the race cars.

Don Schumacher Racing’s Funny Car drivers, from left, Jack Beckman, Tommy Johnson Jr., Ron Capps and Matt Hagan.

In pledging their brains, Schumacher and his seven drivers will also “immediately begin a comprehensive brain monitoring process to ensure an in-depth brain profile upon donation,” according to a team statement.

DSR’s pledges coincide with CLF Project Enlist, a new program launched this week by CLF and Infinite Hero Foundation (IHF) a non-profit organization (and a partner of DSR) that assists military veterans returning from battle and their families. IHF’s main goal is to “accelerate research on traumatic brain injury (TBI), CTE and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in military veterans.”

DSR and Project Enlist are conducting recruiting and outreach to military and veteran communities to increase participation in the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs-Boston University-Concussion Legacy Foundation (VA-BU-CLF) Brain Bank brain donation registry.

The VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank is the world’s largest CTE brain bank specializing in research into concussions, ALS, and Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.

Schumacher, who was one of the sport’s most successful drivers in the 1960s and 1970s, has since gone on to build a vast business and racing empire that employs over 2,000 individuals. He is also regarded as one of the top innovators in performance and safety in drag racing.

“Donating my brain for research to help other individuals in this world is something that I’m more than willing to do,” said Don Schumacher, who was recently named to the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America’s Class of 2019. “It surprised my wife, Sarah, but she also agreed to me doing this based on its potential to help drivers, soldiers, business people and the population of the world.

Team owner Don Schumacher.

“I support (the CLF) 100 percent and was thrilled that my seven drivers agreed to donate their brains.”

Here are comments from all of Schumacher’s seven drivers who have pledged to donate their brains to research post-mortem:

Tony Schumacher, driver of the U.S. Army Top Fuel dragster: “I think any athlete donating their brain is a great idea once you’re done with it here on earth. If people can come up with a better system, and a better way to keep future drivers safer, that’s what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to improve our world. The doctors and the technology with all athletes right now, they’re diving in deep to come up with concussion research, and as a driver that goes through 11,000-horsepower, 2.5-Richter scale shaking every single run, I think we’re good candidates to research.”

“Fast Jack” Beckman, driver of the Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car: “My wife didn’t take the news that I was pledging my brain quite the way I thought. Apparently, she wants to have me stuffed and put in the corner of our living room (he said with a laugh), but (growing serious) I’ve been an organ donor since I was 16. My thought is, if it can help somebody else, that’s fantastic. When you see these veterans coming back with traumatic brain injuries and PTS, and there’s no one cure for this, it makes you realize how much more we still need to learn about the human brain to have effective treatments for the majority of the injured vets. To be a part of that in some small way; well, I can’t take my brain with me, haven’t used it since I started driving a Funny Car (he said with another laugh), so someone else might as well take advantage.”

Ron Capps, driver of the NAPA AUTO PARTS Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car: “When approached with the chance to help the Concussion Legacy Foundation and have an opportunity to help with advancing the study, treatment, and prevention of the effects of brain trauma in athletes as well as other at-risk groups, we said ‘yes’ without hesitation. The Concussion Legacy Foundation is a group of dedicated people doing great things to help the next generations to come, and we’re proud to help in any way we can.”

Antron Brown, driver of the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Top Fuel dragster: “We always want to do whatever we can to help elevate the safety in our sport, and be proactive in bettering the safety for all.”

Matt Hagan, driver of the Mopar Express Lane Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Funny Car: “I think it’s pretty cool to donate anything to science. My brain is kind of mush anyways (jokes). Anytime we can do something to help is a good thing and being able to have research off of how your brain is affected by g-force and things like that, is interesting. Driving a nitro Funny Car is not something just anybody gets to do. There are only maybe 50 people in the world that really, truly experience the g-forces we do on a regular basis. These cars are extreme, we put on a show, and we put our bodies through elements that most people will never even understand. If we can help with the research of concussions and saving lives, that’s a great thing, and I’m all about it.”

Tommy Johnson Jr., driver of the Make-A-Wish Foundation Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car: “I elected to donate my brain because of all of my years of racing, suffering explosions and experiencing tire shake. If the Concussion Legacy Foundation can learn something that would help the next generation, I would be very proud to be a part of that. Tying it in with the soldiers who experience traumatic brain injuries, if we can work together and help one another, I think it’s a great opportunity for the road to recovery for everyone.”

Leah Pritchett, driver of the Mopar Dodge Top Fuel dragster: “When I was first asked if I would be open to donating my brain for future research, there wasn’t even a question in my mind at all. All of us are safer in our passenger cars and safer in our race cars because of what we’ve been able to learn from the past. We get to do what we do and are safe because of technology and science. If I have a legacy to leave behind, and it can benefit anybody in any way, from the sports community to the military to a child that wants to play football, whatever it may be, once I’m gone, I won’t need my brain so I’m proud to know that it will benefit others.”

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