INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones

Texas Motor Speedway remains vital venue for IndyCar Series

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FORT WORTH, Texas – Since 1997, Texas Motor Speedway has been an important stop on the NTT IndyCar Series schedule. It provided the upstart Indy Racing League with a solid anchor for a second home outside of the Indianapolis 500.

That first race drew an announced crowd of 129,000 fans, who were thrilled at the sight of IndyCar’s first modern-day night race, under the lights in spectacular conditions.

When the 1.5-mile track opened, it was a racing palace and fans in Texas had a huge appetite for racing. Big crowds continued to watch, up through the rise of Danica Patrick and “DanicaMania” in 2005.

IndyCar racing at Texas has changed over the years. Initially, pack racing dominated as high-downforce setups allowed large groups of cars to race in tight formation. It thrilled the spectators but led to an outcry from drivers and team owners believing it was too hazardous and too costly when their cars were destroyed in crashes.

In 2012, IndyCar drastically changed the aerodynamic package for high-speed ovals. The result at Texas was a race that saw the field get spread out like an accordion.

But these races would still create dramatic outcomes. In 2012, the late Justin Wilson won the race after leader Graham Rahal brushed the Turn 4 wall heading to the white flag. In 2014, Ed Carpenter – a proponent of the previous Texas pack racing – nipped Will Power by .525 seconds.

Scott Dixon won a snoozer in 2015, defeating Tony Kanaan by almost eight seconds in a race that had just one caution for 13 laps and a strung-out field.

But the thrill returned in 2016 when Graham Rahal edged James Hinchcliffe at the start finish line by just .008 seconds in one of the closest finishes in IndyCar history.

The track was then repaved in 2017, and the new surface created much more grip. It created a return of the packs and ultimately led to Will Power winning under caution. That night, the yellow flew nine times for a whopping 66 laps.

Another change to the aero package and tires followed for 2018, which saw Dixon win in another runaway – this time, defeating Simon Pagenaud by over four seconds.

It remains to be seen what style of racing will take place in tonight’s DXC Technology 600, but a win at Texas remains a very important victory to any driver in the NTT IndyCar Series.

It comes at a track that is steeped in IndyCar history and heritage, and it rewards a driver that is able to master the art of high-speed racing on a high-banked oval.

The drivers remain split in what style of racing they prefer: Some would like to see closer racing, while others want to avoid the pack at all costs.

As noted earlier, Carpenter is one of the few drivers that wants to see a return to pack racing.

“I thought that was very exciting,” Carpenter told NBCSports.com Friday.

Others don’t believe it’s worth the risk.

“I prefer non-pack racing,” Will Power’s engineer, David Faustino, said. “We have won here with both forms of racing, but I prefer non-pack races.

“I think last year’s race was pretty good. You had a few cars that were battling. Maybe it could be a teeny bit tighter. Will believes, with this tire, it might be getting closer to the field being able to go flat out, and that would tighten the field.

“If the racing becomes tighter, the drivers have less ability to manage the wear on the tire. I don’t think they will be able to manage that very well.”

And then, there are others who would like a mix in-between the two.

“I’m somewhere between the pack racing and spread out,” Ryan Hunter-Reay said. “I would like to have this race come down to some handling (on the car).

“Oval racing has its challenges right now to attract fans. I love oval racing. It’s one of my favorite forms of racing.”

Firestone has tried to bring a tire to Texas that will wear over the course of a run, allowing more passing opportunities for drivers with fresher tires. In past Texas races, tires have blistered – losing chunks of rubber and leading to ill-handling race cars – because of the extreme conditions on this track with heat and grip.

“New tires still have an advantage, but we will have degradation, too,” pole winner Takuma Sato said. “I think it’s going to be a very good race. If everybody is on the new tire, the first 15-20 laps, everybody will be in a pack. After that, you will see the degradation and it will spread out.

“It shouldn’t be pack racing. Drawing the line is very difficult. At least, allow us to go two-wide through Turns 3 and 4 and that should allow us to have a good race.”

Team owner Dale Coyne believes the tires are much better than what they had last year.

“Each car was able to run 40 laps Thursday night and we could never run 40 laps with the old tire we had here before,” he said. “Winning here is still big. Justin Wilson said if he couldn’t win Indy, he wanted to win here because it proves how good a driver can be on an oval.

“It’s tricky to find the right balance. Pack racing can be too dangerous. Spread out can be too boring. You have to find the right balance. Getting the package right and getting the rules right, it can be tricky.”

NHRA: Antron Brown takes major step toward team ownership

NHRA
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There will come a day that when three-time NHRA Top Fuel champion Antron Brown wants to talk to his boss, he’ll need to look no further than in the mirror.

The New Jersey native announced Tuesday that he has begun to lay the groundwork to own his Top Fuel team, eventually branching out from Don Schumacher Racing.

“It’s definitely exciting, but at the same time, it’s also nerve-wracking because the buck stops here right now,” Brown told NBC Sports. “Now the coolest part is you get to help and drive and motivate and push the team forward, to make decisions and leave a legacy behind for my family.”

Brown will continue racing for DSR this season while beginning the transition to eventual sole ownership of the new AB Motorsports in the future. Even when he officially leaves the DSR camp as a hired driver, Brown and his new team will retain a technical partnership with the Schumacher organization.

Moving toward team ownership is just a natural evolution for Brown, who previously ran his own Pro Stock Motorcycle team from 1998 until joining DSR in 2002. It’s also a move that potentially may lead other current drivers to start thinking about their own futures.

It’s no secret that many of the biggest names in drag racing – both drivers and owners – are getting up in years. John Force will soon turn 72, while Schumacher is 75. They’re among several others in the sport who are making contingency plans for their teams to continue to operate once they’re gone – and Brown wants to do his part to help the sport grow and flourish.

“When you’re able to have ownership, you’re looking at the talent coming up,” Brown said. “You’re able to reach down and see and give other people opportunities that you had. When I came to race for Don Schumacher at DSR, he’s given all these people at his place this opportunity to drive.

“But what happens when the Don Schumachers, the John Forces, the Connie Kalittas go? You lose all the owners of our series, so who’s next in line to take over that lineage or carry that torch? It’s a necessary means for the future for the upcoming people.

Antron Brown’s plans to become a team owner were embraced by his current team owner, Don Schumacher. (Getty Images)

“I’ve been in this sport for over 20 years. This is the next evolution of my chapter, the next page of my book. What am I going to do when I decide to hang the helmet up one day? I want to be there to bring that new crop of drivers and talent up and help mold them to be the best version of themselves to carry the sport forward and to share with them what was shared with me over all my years in the sport, from Kenny Bernstein, John Force, Big Daddy Don Garlits, Mark Oswald and Don “Snake” Prudhomme, all the people I looked up to.”

While Brown will start as a single-car team once he transitions to ownership, he hopes to eventually build AB Motorsports into at least a two-car operation, with his Top Fuel dragster and a Funny Car.

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The path to eventual ownership began nearly a year ago when Brown and Schumacher discussed the future.

“Me and Don had a heart-to-heart talk,” Brown said. “When I told him what I wanted to do, Don said, ‘Antron, I know this is what you want to do. I’ll support you in this.’

“That’s a cool experience when you have a gentleman that has done everything in this sport, from over 350 national event wins, 17 world championships – and I’ve done three with him – and is in every motorsports hall of fame there is.

“What is he going to do next? He’s making the sport better by pushing people like myself to do what I’m doing now. No matter how long it takes, I know I have him on my backside, pushing me to get to that point.”

Like father, like son: Antron Brown and son Anson, who is following in his father’s drag racing footsteps. Photo: Antron Brown’s official Facebook page.

His family’s future also figured into Brown’s decision. His oldest son, Anson, soon turns 16 years old and is heavily involved in NHRA’s Jr. Dragster program, as are Brown’s other children. It’s likely his son some day will follow in his father’s footsteps.

But don’t think that the elder Brown, who turns 44 in March, is ready to hang up his firesuit just yet.

“I’ll stop driving when I feel I’m not capable to drive no more and I’m not having fun no more,” he said. “That’s nowhere in the near future. I know I’m going to drive for at least another 15 years.”

Heading into this season, Brown will retain current sponsorship from Mac Tools and Toyota, as well as associate sponsorship from Hangsterfer’s on his 11,000-horsepower dragster. Global Electronic Technology also has signed on as a new associate sponsor in a multiyear deal.

“It’s no secret this has been a goal of Antron’s for a while now, and I’m happy to be able to provide the tools and resources needed for him to be able to successfully branch out on his own,” Schumacher said in a team media release. “It’s important for me to see my team members grow.”

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Brown burst upon the NHRA scene atop a Pro Stock Motorcycle in 1998, earning 16 wins over the next 10 seasons. He joined DSR in 2002 and made the switch to Top Fuel in 2008.

Since then, Brown – who now resides in suburban Indianapolis – has gone on to become one of the winningest drivers in Top Fuel history with 50 national event victories, as well as three championships between 2012 and 2015.

That performance recently earned him AutoWeek magazine’s Top Fuel Driver of the Decade.

Brown also announced Tuesday he is reuniting with former crew chief Brian Corradi, who returns to the team after spending the last two seasons as co-crew chief for 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force. Corradi will share crew chief duties for Brown with NHRA veteran Mark Oswald.

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When he won his first title in 2012, Brown became the first African-American world champion in Top Fuel history. He hopes his move to ownership will continue to grow NHRA’s already significant focus on opportunities for minorities and females in the sport.

“I think it’s important across all spectrums, period,” Brown said. “I think a lot of fans see me, and they can relate to me because I am them. I came from a good, hard-working family in Chesterfield, New Jersey, which is right next door to Trenton.

“Everybody in my family from my great uncles to my grandpop made their own way, had their own businesses, from swimming pool to paving to septic tank businesses.

“One thing my grandpop said to me is the world is wide open. He said, ‘Son, you can have anything you want in this world, as long as you put the effort and put the work towards it.’ If people can resonate with my story from where I came from and where I’m heading, I hope it gives them this energy, this ray of hope that ‘if Antron Brown can do this, so can I.’

“That’s the only way for motorsports to grow. It’s for the young ones to get interested in it and I want them to know the opportunity is there. All they have to do is take it.”

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Brown will be among more than 30 Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers who will take part in this weekend’s annual preseason “spring training” test at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, in preparation for the season-opening Lucas Oil Winternationals Feb. 6-9 in Pomona, California.

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