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.”

3-time NHRA champ Larry Dixon gives back to save lives on the streets

Photo courtesy Larry Dixon Racing
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Three-time NHRA Top Fuel champ Larry Dixon is a man on a new mission: to save lives on the streets and highways as perhaps the fastest driving instructor in the world.

Because he’s not currently hurtling down a dragstrip at 330 mph on the NHRA national tour, Dixon is at a point where it was time for him to give back and help youngsters the way so many individuals helped him in his own life and career.

Much like when he became the protege of mentor Don “Snake” Prudhomme – first as a crew member and then as Prudhomme’s hand-picked choice to replace him when he retired as a driver – Dixon is now imparting some of his vast knowledge behind the wheel upon thousands of impressionable teens and young adults around the country.

Dixon recently signed on as an instructor with fellow former Top Fuel champ Doug Herbert’s nationally renowned B.R.A.K.E.S. (Be Responsible and Keep Everyone Safe) driver safety training program. Since Herbert formed the free, non-profit program in 2008 to honor the memory of sons Jon and James, who were both killed in a tragic car crash, B.R.A.K.E.S. has trained over 35,000 students across the U.S. and five countries to be better and safer drivers.

MORE: Drag racer Doug Herbert turns son’s deaths into program that has helped over 35,000 teens

After putting two of his own teen children through Herbert’s program (with a third child to go through the program soon), Dixon was so impressed with the training that his kids received that he told his old buddy he wanted to become involved with B.R.A.K.E.S.

“I’ve known Doug since we were in high school,” Dixon told NBC Sports. “We both worked at a chain of speed shops in Southern California, Doug at one in Orange County and me at one in the San Fernando Valley in Van Nuys. We came up together racing Alcohol cars and Top Fuel cars kind of along the same lines. That’s how long I’ve known Doug.

Photo: Larry Dixon Racing

“I ran my son through the course a couple years ago when it came through Indianapolis (where Dixon and his family now live), and then my daughter signed up for a class a couple months ago, and that kind of got the talk going because I’m not on the (NHRA national event) tour now and I’ve got more time and the conversation just snowballed and here I am.

“I obviously believe in the deal if I ran my own kids through the system. The program is very methodical but still personal. When you put the kids in the car, you’ve got one instructor and three students, so they’re getting taught one-on-one almost.”

Even though he’s been driving for nearly 40 years, Dixon, 52, readily admits with a chuckle, “I’ve even learned things from the program already, which shows you’re never too old to learn.”

In a more serious vein, Dixon said from his perspective as both an instructor and a parent of two of the program’s graduates is how parents are so vital to the program’s impact.

“It’s mandatory that when you’re running a student through the program that at least one parent or guardian is also there, so the message you’re teaching the teens, you have to rely on the parent to not only be on the same page as what we’re teaching, but to also drive that message home for the rest of their lives.”

Dixon isn’t teaching students to drive 330 mph or to become aspiring drag racers. On the contrary. Dixon is right at home giving instructions on how students can avoid incidents or accidents on streets and highways at speeds typically between 30 and 50 mph.

“It’s more impactful as far as your legacy,” Dixon said of his motivation to teach. “Obviously, I’ve won a lot of races, but what I have to show for those wins are trophies but they’re in the basement, and if you don’t dust them, they get dusty.

“What I’m doing with B.R.A.K.E.S., you’re making a difference for people hopefully for the rest of their lives, and that’s bigger. I remember when I first got my own racing license. The first day I had my license, I was a race car driver but I wasn’t a great race car driver right away, I just had a license. It took a lot of years and a lot of runs and laps down the racetrack to be able to be good.

“It’s the same thing with a driver’s license. You go through the driver’s education course and such and they hand you your license, but that doesn’t make you a great driver. It takes a lot of road time to be able to get that experience. And the great thing about this course is you’re trying to ramp up that experience and put the teens in situations ahead of time so that when they’re in the real world, they’ll know how to react to them.

Larry Dixon is interviewed recently during his debut as a driving instructor for B.R.A.K.E.S. Photo courtesy B.R.A.K.E.S.

“These cars nowadays have so many safety features on them, but they don’t get taught. When you go through a basic driver’s education course, they don’t teach you that you can slam on the brakes and if you have an ABS (anti-lock) brake system, let alone how to use it, so that’s part of what we’re running the kids through. It lets them speed up and then slam on the brakes and feeling what ABS does and that a car isn’t going to spin out or flip over like you might see in a ‘Fast and Furious’ movie. Most people don’t know what you can do with a car and how great cars will take care of you as long as they use the tools you’re supplied with.”

Dixon has already taught three different classes in the last month, with five more sessions scheduled primarily in the Midwest in the coming months. You can immediately hear the passion and self-satisfaction he’s getting from being a teacher.

“I really do enjoy it,” Dixon said. “You get to see the difference you can make in someone’s lives. When you get them on a skid course and they’re learning how to get out of a spin or slide, they’re having fun but also learning a valuable lesson.

“After they’ve taken the course, they have a bounce in their step and know and understand cars better and have a good time doing it. That’s what Doug has done, out of his tragedy, he’s really making a difference in other people’s lives. We’re not trying to turn the kids into Mario Andretti or anything like that … just to be better and safer drivers.”

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