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.

Houston Supercross by the numbers: Five riders begin to gap the field

Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media
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Chase Sexton stumbled in San Diego and Eli Tomac had a hard fall in Anaheim 2, but the Monster Energy Supercross numbers for Houston suggest they will continue to be the ones to beat in Houston. To do so, they will have to turn back challenges from another pair of riders who have swept the top five in the first three rounds and another with a worst finish of sixth.

Houston Supercross numbers
Cooper Webb’s ability to close races makes him a Houston favorite. – Feld Motor Sports

Despite an accident in his heat in San Diego that sent him to the Last Chance Qualifier (LCQ), Sexton recovered to score a top-five that weekend. His podium finish in Anaheim 1 and overall win last week in Anaheim 2 makes him one of the three riders with a perfect top-five record. He is joined by Cooper Webb, who finished second in the first two rounds and fourth last week, and Ken Roczen, whose consistency in the first three races contributed to him grabbing the top spot in this week’s NBC Supercross Power Rankings.

There are reasons to believe Webb and Roczen can keep those streaks alive.

Webb is the only multiple winner at Supercross’ current Houston stadium. His pair of wins came in 2019 and 2021, the same year he won his two 450 championships.

Clinton Fowler points out this week, that Webb has carried that strength into 2023. Webb had a late surge in Anaheim 1, advancing from fifth to second in the final six laps. In San Diego, he set his ninth fastest lap with two to go and his eighth fastest on the final lap. He posted his fastest lap of Anaheim 2 on Lap 12 while the rest of the field did so on Lap 6 on average.

By comparison, Tomac set his 14th fastest lap on the final circuit in route to winning the Main at San Diego while he was trying to keep Webb at bay.

With a sixth at San Diego, Dylan Ferrandis barely missed sweeping the top five in his first three races as did Tomac with a sixth last week at Anaheim 2.

This will be the 46th year Supercross has visited Houston and with 55 races the city is tied for the second-most with Detroit. Jim Pomeroy won the first race in the Astrodome in 1974. Webb won most recently in 2021 in the final race of three held there that year as the series executed a strategy of racing in residencies to limit travel during height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tomac and Justin Barcia also won in Houston in 2021.

Two privateers have started the season on a high note.

Joshua Cartwright and Joshua Varize have each made the last two Mains. Cartwright finished 18th in San Diego and 21st last week in Anaheim 2 – all while working fulltime as a Business Intelligence Analyst at the University of Texas, Dallas. Varize earned a top-15 (12th) in San Diego and was 21st in Anaheim 2 in his third season on a 450.

Michael Mosiman scored his first 250 win last year in San Diego. – Feld Motor Sports

The numbers show none of the active 250 Supercross East riders have won in Houston, so no matter who steps on top of the box, there is going to be a fresh face. That is not surprising since most of the top competitors have not raced at this venue yet.

Michael Mosiman has a pair of top-fives there, however. His best finish was a second in the second 2021 race. Garrett Marchbanks scored a top-10 in his rookie season of 2019 in Houston.

In the 250 East division, Hunter Lawrence is one of the favorites to win the title now that Christian Craig has moved to 450s. Last year he had four wins and nine podiums, but failed to set a fast lap in a race.

The other 250 riders with 2022 wins this week are Mosiman, who earned his first Supercross win last year in San Diego, and Nate Thrasher, who became the fifth new class winner at Daytona.

Jeremy Martin will attempt to extend a record this week in Houston. His division leading SuperMotocross podiums number 65. He has 26 wins in the combined sessions, which ranks fourth all time.

Last Five Houston Winners

450s
2022, no race
2021, Race 3: Cooper Webb
2021, Race 2: Eli Tomac
2021, Race 1: Justin Barcia
2020, no race
2019, Cooper Webb
2018, Jason Anderson

250s
2022, no race
2021, Race 3: Colt Nichols
2021, Race 2: Jett Lawrence
2021, Race 1: Christian Craig
2020, no race
2019, Dylan Ferrandis
2018, Aaron Plessinger

By the Numbers

Anaheim 2
San Diego

More SuperMotocross coverage

Supercross unveils 16th edition of a Ricky Carmichael designed Daytona track
Power Rankings after week 3
Haiden Deegan makes Supercross debut in Houston, Justin Cooper to 450s
Talon Hawkins set to relieve injured Jalek Swoll in Houston
Jalek Swoll out for an indefinite period with broken arm
Ken Roczen urgently needed a change
Chris Blose joins Pro Circuit Kawasaki in 250 East opener
Seth Hammaker to miss Houston with wrist injury
Jo Shimoda joins Seth Hammaker, Austin Forkner on injured list
Injury sidelines Austin Forkner for remainder of 2023 SX
Chase Sexton wins Anaheim 2 in 450s; Levi Kitchen takes 250s
Results and points from Anaheim 2