A viewer’s guide to Texas’ IndyCar opener: 5 things to watch Saturday

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So let’s make a list of five things to watch in Saturday night’s Genesys 300 at Texas Motor Speedway (8 p.m. ET, NBC).

Or is that 50 things? 500? 5,000?

It’s hard to know how to start winnowing down all the potential storylines that will bear watching.

An unsual one-day event with no one in attendance will open the 2020 IndyCar season on the NTT Data Series’ most daunting 1.5-mile speedway with drivers adapting to a new Aeroscreen at 200 mph for the first time.

DETAILED RUNDOWNAll the info, schedules and stats for Saturday’s race

INDYCAR’S LONGEST DAY: Texas schedule, travel will challenge teams and drivers

And we haven’t gotten to the 35-lap maximum tire stints or the wildly varying levels of experience among the two dozen drivers in the field

“I don’t think we’ve ever gone into a race with so many question marks, so many unknowns,” Alexander Rossi said on his Off Track podcast this week with James Hinchcliffe. “This is a track we usually go to after we’ve had a month at Indianapolis. So your speedway car and reference points are pretty dialed in, and you’ve had six to seven races, already in the championship. The team is firing on all cylinders. You’re starting to look to the second half of the season. You’ve kind of found your rhythm.

“Now you don’t have any of that.”

But you do have Texas, which occupies a special place on the calendar and has won by the eventual series champion in three of the past five seasons.

“Texas is the most intense race of our calendar each and every year,” Graham Rahal said Friday on The Rich Eisen Show. “So to throw us out there is like throwing us to the wolves. This one in particular is going to be pretty intense.”

Even though everything’s bigger in Texas, we’ll stick with five things to watch Saturday night:

Into the fire: If there’s been one consistent theme as racing series have returned to the action, it’s been a propensity for drivers to make mistakes. Whether champions from NASCAR or the World of Outlaws, rust consistently has made an impact on results, and IndyCar drivers are no different as they go from 0 to 200 mph in competition for the first time in nearly nine months.

Graham Rahal smiles during preseason testing at Circuit of The Americas (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

“I’m nervous,” Rahal said. “I think everybody is nervous. If you’re not nervous, I’d be concerned about the head that you have on your shoulders because you’re going to the most intense track of the year without testing. You’re going there without much practice. You’re going there without knowing what these tires may bring for us this weekend.”

Unlike NASCAR, which sent drivers immediately into the fray May 17 at Darlington Raceway without practice or qualifying, IndyCar drivers will have a little more than an hour to get their cars set up correctly before qualifying and racing for 200 laps. But it barely will be enough time, particularly for several combinations of drivers and engineers who have yet to work together, especially in the age of facemasks and social distancing that will be applied throughout the day.

“We’ve got a very narrow window there in practice,” said James Hinchcliffe, who will be making the first of three starts for Andretti Autosport. “There’s a lot to accomplish in just an hour and a half with two sets of tires while all trying to learn a new way of doing things, new procedures and protocols.”

The upside is that Hinchcliffe and other drives are in some of the best shapes of their lives after having three months to train for the 90-degreee Texas heat.

Josef Newgarden will enter Saturday’s race as the defending series champion and the defending winner at Texas Motor Speedway (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

Some drivers undoubtedly will be taking the lack of preparation as a challenge, and defending Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud said he would have been ready to go cold turkey.

“We’re at this level for a reason,” Pagenaud told NBCSports.com. “We’re professionals, and if IndyCar asked us to get in and race, then I’ll race. I think that’s why we’re special. That’s why there’s only 33 IndyCar drivers in the world. I would have no problem just going racing.

Said Penske teammate Josef Newgarden: “Look, we got to make the most of it. I think in some ways it’s very exciting because we’ve never had opportunities to see who could shine under situations where there’s not a lot of testing. Kind of have to make quick decisions, hopefully make them better than people around you. From that standpoint, I’m really excited. I think it’s going to put a lot of pressure to get it right early. I think some people will really shine under those conditions more so than others.”

A cockpit upgrade: Virtually every driver in the field has tried the Aeroscreen (and all of them have gotten a taste virtually in iRacing), the new 17.3-pound ballistic screen is a windshield-type device that surrounds the cockpit and offers greater head protection. Its 27.8-pound titanium frame can withstand 34,000 pounds of load and repel a 2-pound object at over 220 mph.

But the safety upgrade will add some competition wrinkles with a new line of sight for drivers who also will adapt to the added weight that will affect handling.

Simon Pagenaud prepares to test his No. 22 Chevrolet at Circuit of The Americas (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

“It’s very easy to describe,” Pagenaud told NBCSports.com. “You have to imagine that we have a bubble in front of us, so the air has been moved differently onto the race car, and differently onto that rear wing. Apparently we have a little less downforce than before, so the car will be a bit more difficult to drive.

“It should add some stability adding that weight on the front. It might wear the front tires a little more. At the end of the day, it’s an adjustment, but it’s all for good reason, which is safety.”

The bulk of the testing with the Aeroscreen has been done on road courses, so there are some large unknowns entering Saturday as well as how much hotter the cockpit will be when it essentially is surrounded by a windshield without a roof.

“The big question mark is — and you can’t simulate it, you can’t run it through a computer — is what is the Aeroscreen going to do,” Alexander Rossi told NBCSports.com. “Some teams had the opportunity to test the Aeroscreen on an oval and at Texas. But at least from Andretti’s perspective, the only time that we’ve had with the Aeroscreen has been on road courses.

“We’re kind of going into Texas blind from that standpoint and will take our best guess at it. And hope because we have five cars, that one of them sticks.”

Alexander Rossi sits inside his Aeroscreen-protected No. 27 Dallara-Honda during NTT IndyCar Series testing at Circuit of The Americas (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

Strategy plays: Because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Firestone was unable to complete construction of new tires to match the new Aeroscreen-mounted cars at Texas. Using tires designed for high-speed ovals from last season, IndyCar will limit teams to maximum stints of 35 laps to be cautious about tire wear.

That’s about half of a typical green-flag run at Texas, which has relatively fresh asphalt after a 2017 repave, and Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull believes having the shorter stints “could open up strategy you might not have had.”

Said Tom German, the technical director for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing: “Teams may use six or seven sets of tires in the race (five or six pit stops). With six sets, the first stop would be between Laps 25-35.

A side view of the Aeroscreen on Will Power’s No. 12 Chevrolet during preseason testing (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

“If a team elects to do an extra pit stop and use seven sets of tires, the pit windows are wide open. They could stop on an early yellow and attempt to catch another yellow after the six-set teams have pitted on green or they could trade off fresh tires and track position on a late race pit stop. Key factors will be the timing of yellow flags, the ability to pass on fresh tires, and the tire degradation.”

A shorter race (a 300-miler that is the shortest since twin 166-mile races in 2011) also could be a major factor.

“It’s almost running like a high-speed short oval now because there’s a decent amount of (tire degradation) after a couple laps on a stint,” Marco Andretti said. “It’s not going to be as pack racy. Maybe at the restarts on newer tires, but I think the good cars will be able to go towards the front now.”

First timers: There will be three rookies making their IndyCar oval debuts – Oliver Askew, Rinus VeeKay and Alex Palou, who will be starting for the first time on an oval. Other drivers (such as Pato O’Ward) have limited laps on an oval in the NTT Data Series.

Oliver Askew enters the 2020 season after winning the 2019 Indy Lights championship (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

“I’m sure we’re going to be able to start with a conservative approach because it’s my first oval race in an IndyCar,” Askew said. “With the impound after qualifying, I’m quite happy about that. I’m sure a lot of other drivers are, especially the rookies, because we won’t be trimming out for qualifying. We’re going to be running race downforce. I think that’s pretty close to max.”

Askew was permitted to run some laps Feb. 14 at Texas in a rookie test that also included Scott McLaughlin, Palou and VeeKay. That means extra data for Team Penske, Dale Coyne Racing, Ed Carpenter Racing and Arrow McLaren SP.

Veterans Newgarden (Penske), Santino Ferrucci (DCR with Vasser Sullivan) and Carpenter (ECR) also were allowed to shake down cars for their rookie teammates at the test, which contending teams such as Andretti, Ganassi and RLL weren’t eligible to run.

The rookie also will get extra track time Saturday. “I think the rookies do need to run, but also let’s not forget that a lot of rookies did go to Texas and (test), so they would have had that information and data, as well,” Rahal said. “My point is if there is going to be no testing, there should be no testing, let’s go racing, and may the best man win.”

Track and weather conditions will be much different Saturday than in winter, though.

I think the perception is that it may” be an edge to have tested, Team Penske president Tim Cindric said. “It probably depends on what side you sit on. But what we ran there with (McLaughlin, who won’t be racing Saturday and had no experience on ovals) was obviously something very different than what we would plan to race with our guys because you’re trying to give him the maximum level of comfort. I can’t remember even how many laps that he ran, but just getting to the point where he could hold the thing full throttle all the way around was a bit of a learning curve.

“I don’t think we learned too much more than I guess we anticipated doing. Every team that didn’t get a run there is going to say that we gained all these big advantages and we’re going to say that really it wasn’t that big of an advantage.”

Alex Palou, who will make his oval debut at Texas, makes laps in preseason testing at Circuit of The Americas (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

Sadly, no cheering allowed: Texas will be the first of at least two IndyCar races held in front of empty grandstands (the July 4 race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course also won’t have fans in attendance).

What will the atmosphere be like Saturday? Inside the car, drivers hardly will notice the difference given that they can’t hear the crowd over their V6 twin-turbocharged engines.

But outside of the car, it’ll be noticeable. During prerace, it’ll probably feel like a test session, and the schedule will be harried enough that drivers might not notice the absence of the usual throngs (aside perhaps from the weekly autograph sessions).

Ryan Hunter-Reay will be aiming for his second IndyCar championship with his No. 28 Dallara-Honda at Andretti Autosport (Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images).

“The day is going to be so packed, I don’t know how much time we would really have with the fans,” Felix Rosenqvist told NBCSports.com. “Normally we have three days, we can take breaks between the sessions and a few minutes here and there and talk to fans and sign autographs and everything. Now we’re going to travel to the race, practice, qualify and race and fly back the same day.

“From a fan perspective, I think that would be very difficult during this day. Obviously, watching from the grandstands is something people can’t do, and that’s a big shame. But if people could decide no race at all or watch from home, I think everyone would vote for watch from home. At the end of the day, it’s a victory for all motorsports fans.”

From watching the subdued winners’ reactions after the five Cup races since NASCAR’s return, though, it unquestionably will feel odd postrace.

“What is going to be strange, getting out of the car, whether you’re celebrating a win or you’re disappointed with the loss, trying to feed off that energy that the crowd gives you in that moment, that’s going to be very different,” Newgarden said. “It’s not going to be there. I think those moments will be very, very strange for everybody. Disappointing in a lot of ways just because that’s a lot of what we love about racing, is doing our part, driving the cars, trying to be competitive in the race, then sharing that energy level with the crowd.”


IndyCar practice: 1 p.m., NBC Sports Gold

IndyCar qualifying5 p.m., NBCSN, NBC Sports Gold

Countdown to Green: 7:30 p.m., NBCSN

IndyCar Genesys 3008 p.m., NBC

IndyCar postrace coverage: 10 p.m., NBCSN

‘It’s gnarly, bro’: IndyCar drivers face new challenge on streets of downtown Detroit

IndyCar Detroit downtown
James Black/Penske Entertainment
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DETROIT – It was the 1968 motion picture, “Winning” when actress Joanne Woodward asked Paul Newman if he were going to Milwaukee in the days after he won the Indianapolis 500 as driver Frank Capua.

“Everybody goes to Milwaukee after Indianapolis,” Newman responded near the end of the film.

Milwaukee was a mainstay as the race on the weekend after the Indianapolis 500 for decades, but since 2012, the first race after the Indy 500 has been Detroit at Belle Isle Park.

This year, there is a twist.

Instead of IndyCar racing at the Belle Isle State Park, it’s the streets of downtown Detroit on a race course that is quite reminiscent of the old Formula One and CART race course that was used from 1982 to 1991.

Formula One competed in the United States Grand Prix from 1982 to 1988. Beginning in 1989, CART took over the famed street race through 1991. In 1992, the race was moved to Belle Isle, where it was held through last year (with a 2009-2011 hiatus after the Great Recession).

The Penske Corp. is the promoter of this race, and they did a lot of good at Belle Isle, including saving the Scott Fountain, modernizing the Belle Isle Casino, and basically cleaning up the park for Detroit citizens to enjoy.

The race, however, had outgrown the venue. Roger Penske had big ideas to create an even bigger event and moving it back to downtown Detroit benefitted race sponsor Chevrolet. The footprint of the race course goes around General Motors world headquarters in the GM Renaissance Center – the centerpiece building of Detroit’s modernized skyline.

INDYCAR IN DETROITEntry list, schedule, TV info for this weekend

JOSEF’S FAMILY TIESNewgarden wins Indy 500 with wisdom of father, wife

Motor City is about to roar with the sound of Chevrolet and Honda engines this weekend as the NTT IndyCar Series is the featured race on the nine-turn, 1.7-mile temporary street course.

It’s perhaps the most unique street course on the IndyCar schedule because of the bumps on the streets and the only split pit lane in the series.

The pit lanes has stalls on opposing sides and four lanes across an unusual rectangular pit area (but still only one entry and exit).

Combine that, with the bumps and the NTT IndyCar Series drivers look forward to a wild ride in Motor City.

“It’s gnarly, bro,” Arrow McLaren driver Pato O’Ward said before posting the fastest time in Friday’s first practice. “It will be very interesting because the closest thing that I can see it being like is Toronto-like surfaces with more of a Long Beach-esque layout.

“There’s less room for error than Long Beach. There’s no curbs. You’ve got walls. I think very unique to this place.

PRACTICE RESULTS: Speeds from the first session

“Then it’s a bit of Nashville built into it. The braking zones look really very bumpy. Certain pavements don’t look bumpy but with how the asphalt and concrete is laid out, there’s undulation with it. So, you can imagine the cars are going to be smashing on every single undulation because we’re going to go through those sections fairly fast, and obviously the cars are pretty low. I don’t know.

“It looks fun, man. It’s definitely going to be a challenge. It’s going to be learning through every single session, not just for drivers and teams but for race control. For everyone.

“Everybody has to go into it knowing not every call is going to be smooth. It’s a tall task to ask from such a demanding racetrack. I think it’ll ask a lot from the race cars as well.”

The track is bumpy, but O’Ward indicated he would be surprised if it is bumper than Nashville. By comparison to Toronto, driving at slow speed is quite smooth, but fast speed is very bumpy.

“This is a mix of Nashville high-speed characteristics and Toronto slow speed in significant areas,” O’Ward said. “I think it’ll be a mix of a lot of street courses we go to, and the layout looks like more space than Nashville, which is really tight from Turn 4 to 8. It looks to be a bit more spacious as a whole track, but it’ll get tight in multiple areas.”

The concept of having four-wide pit stops is something that excites the 24-year-old driver from Monterey, Mexico.

“I think it’s innovation, bro,” O’Ward said. “If it works out, we’ll look like heroes.

“If it doesn’t, we tried.”

Because of the four lanes on pit road, there is a blend line the drivers will have to adhere to. Otherwise, it would be chaos leaving the pits compared to a normal two-lane pit road.

“If it wasn’t there, there’d be guys fighting for real estate where there’s one car that fits, and there’d be cars crashing in pit lane,” O’Ward said. “I get why they did that. It’s the same for everybody. I don’t think there’s a lot of room to play with. That’s the problem.

“But it looks freaking gnarly for sure. Oh my God, that’s going to be crazy.”

Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing believes the best passing areas will be on the long straights because of the bumps in the turns. That is where much of the action will be in terms of gaining or losing a position in the race.

“It will also be really easy to defend in my opinion,” Palou said. “Being a 180-degree corner, you just have to go on the inside and that’s it. There’s going to be passes for sure but its’ going to be risky.

“Turn 1, if someone dives in, you end up in the wall. They’re not going to be able to pass you on the exit, so maybe with the straight being so long you can actually pass before you end up on the braking zone.”

Palou’s teammate, Marcus Ericsson, was at the Honda simulator in Brownsburg, Indiana, before coming to Detroit and said he was shocked by the amount of bumps on the simulator.

Race promoter Bud Denker, the President of Penske Corporation, and Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix President Michael Montri, sent the track crews onto the streets with grinders to smooth out the bumps on the race course several weeks ago.

“They’ve done a decent amount of work, and even doing the track walk, it looked a lot better than what we expected,” Ericsson said. “I don’t think it’ll be too bad. I hope not. That’ll be something to take into account.

“I think the track layout doesn’t look like the most fun. Maybe not the most challenging. But I love these types of tracks with rules everywhere. It’s a big challenge, and you have to build up to it. That’s the types of tracks that I love to drive. It’s a very much Marcus Ericsson type of track. I like it.”

Scott Dixon, who was second fastest in the opening session, has competed on many new street circuits throughout his legendary racing career. The six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion for Chip Ganassi Racing likes the track layout, even with the unusual pit lane.

I don’t think that’s going to be something that catches on where every track becomes a double barrel,” Dixon said. “It’s new and interesting.

“As far as pit exit, I think Toronto exit is worse with how the wall sticks out. I think in both lanes, you’ve got enough lead time to make it and most guys will make a good decision.”

It wasn’t until shortly after 3 p.m. ET on Friday that the IndyCar drivers began the extended 90-minute practice session to try out the race course for the first time in real life.

As expected, there were several sketchy moments, but no major crashes during the first session despite 19 local yellow flags for incidents and two red flags.

Rookie Agustin Canapino had to cut his practice short after some damage to his No. 78 Dallara-Chevrolet, but he was among many who emerged mostly unscathed from scrapes with the wall.

“It was honestly less carnage than I expected,” said Andretti Autosport’s Kyle Kirkwood, who was third fastest in the practice after coming off his first career IndyCar victory in the most recent street race at Long Beach in April. “I think a lot of people went off in the runoffs, but no one actually hit the wall (too hard), which actually surprised me. Hats off to them for keeping it clean, including myself.

“It was quite a bit less grip than I think everyone expected. Maybe a little bit more bumpy down into Turn 3 than everyone expected. But overall they did a good job between the two manufacturers. I’m sure everyone had pretty much the same we were able to base everything off of. We felt pretty close to maximum right away.”

Most of the preparation for this event was done either on the General Motors Simulator in Huntersville, North Carolina, or the Honda Performance Development simulator in Brownsburg, Indiana.

“Now, we have simulators that can scan the track, so we have done plenty of laps already,” Power told NBC Sports. “They have ground and resurfaced a lot of the track, so it should be smoother.

“But nothing beats real-world experience. It’s going to be a learning experience in the first session.”

As a Team Penske driver, Power and his teammates were consulted about the progress and layout of the Detroit street course. They were shown what was possible with the streets that were available.

“We gave some input back after we were on the similar what might be ground and things like that,” Power said.

Racing on the streets of Belle Isle was a fairly pleasant experience for the fans and corporate sponsor that compete in the race.

But the vibe at the new location gives this a “big event” feel.

“The atmosphere is a lot better,” Power said. “The location, the accessibility for the fans, the crowd that will be here, it’s much easier. I think it will be a much better event.

“It feels like a Long Beach, only in a much bigger city. That is what street course racing is all about.”

Because the track promoter is also the team owner, Power and teammates Scott McLaughlin and Indy 500 winner Josef Newgarden will have a very busy weekend on the track, and with sponsor and personal appearances.

“That’s what pays the bills and allows us to do this,” Power said.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500