Erratic driving upends IndyCar’s championship race

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MADISON, Ill. — Alex Palou stood in the darkened infield watching a replay of the crash that had knocked him out of the final oval event of the season and, consequently, swallowed the last of his lead in the IndyCar standings.

The rest of the field roared on without him Saturday night at World Wide Technology Raceway after Palou was caught in a three-car accident triggered by yet another sketchy restart.

Sloppy racing and botched restarts have been a problem all season in IndyCar – remember, eventual race winner Marcus Ericsson drove up and over Sebastien Bourdais even before the field got to the restart line at Nashville earlier this month – and a rash of impatient and overaggressive driving has jumbled the championship fight.

“We’ve had some pretty erratic and some pretty crazy driving this season, but it just seems to go unnoticed,” Scott Dixon, the six-time and reigning IndyCar champion, said after he was collected in the crash with teammate Palou.

Said race winner, Josef Newgarden: “I think people are driving aggressively these days. You almost have to match it to some degree because if you don’t, you just get run over.”

And Palou, helplessly stuck outside the care center as Pato O’Ward cruised past him for the IndyCar points lead, simply wondered why there was so much impatience with nearly 200 laps to go. “It’s so early. I mean, if it’s the last lap of the race, I can understand. But it’s still early.”

The dicey racing has upturned the championship race and put O’Ward, a 22-year-old Mexican with Formula One aspirations, on top of the IndyCar standings. O’Ward in two weeks went from 42 points down to 10 up on Palou, a 24-year-old Spaniard who has led after eight of 13 rounds.

Palou was last bumped from atop the standings six races ago, in June at Detroit, where an O’Ward victory briefly pushed him ahead by a single point. There is no favorite in the championship race headed into a three-week West Coast swing close to the season, and only 60 points separate O’Ward from Ericsson in fifth.

Newgarden’s victory leapfrogged him from fifth to third and only 22 points back, while Dixon lost nine more points to fall 43 behind.

O’Ward, benefactor of the bold – dangerous? – driving, admitted to playing it safe with calculated moves Saturday night. He finished second to Newgarden and was content to follow the better car. O’Ward’s only chance to win would’ve been if Newgarden was slowed by lapped cars “but they were all very respectful. That’s a change.”

And O’Ward seemed to exonerate Rinus VeeKay for his role in crashing Palou and Dixon, noting that the restarts have been a mess this season. In fact, O’Ward believed the blame lay ahead of VeeKay at perhaps Alexander Rossi for creating a nearly three-wide pack heading into the turn.

“I guess he doesn’t look in his left mirror here. He just turned in, so I had to slam on the brakes so I didn’t crash,” O’Ward said. “I’m assuming that is what caused the checkup behind for sure. For me. it was sudden and pretty aggressive, yes.”

He contended some in the field raced dirty because “I had a lot to lose and they know that. They’re just taking advantage of what position they’re in terms of the championship.”

Dixon believes it is time for IndyCar race control to get involved and, well, control the erratic drivers. There’s so much at stake and it seems unfair when careless, sloppy decisions collect drivers trying to race the right way.

Newgarden admitted after Saturday night’s victory it was difficult to bite his tongue and not name-check the worst offenders. But he said it’s up to individual competitors to learn the nuances of their rivals and figure out who it is safe to race around.

“We all have our feelings on who we feel like is not the right person to be around or who we think is aggressive more than others. It’s just part of the learning process, trying to understand your competitors,” he said. “It’s like that in any series. Everyone knows or has an opinion on who they think is probably not safe to be around on the track.”

There’s a purported hierarchy in NASCAR in which the veterans will mercilessly denounce dangerous driving, lack of etiquette and dismissal of the gentleman’s agreement. Newgarden doesn’t think IndyCar has a similar one.

“I don’t think there’s like a pecking order as far as the veterans and who gets a talking to; I don’t think the youth really cares anyways,” he said.

So it comes down to self-policing and figuring out how to race each individual driver, he said.

“You end up causing enough problems in a row, an individual, that’s going to turn into a bad situation,” Newgarden said.

O’Ward thinks its more cut and dry and drivers need to stop playing games.

“I don’t know why it’s so hard to comprehend. Man, just stay in one throttle, then go. It’s so simple,” O’Ward said. “You see the first (car) jump a little bit, let’s go. If not, you just get eaten. They stop, you stop, you’re relying on the guys behind to stop and it just creates chaos.”

World of Outlaws release 2023 Sprint Car Series schedule

2023 Outlaws Sprint schedule
World of Outlaws

The 2023 World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series schedule features 87 races, almost identical to the last year’s number, to be contested at 36 venues across 19 states. With cancelations for mostly weather, they closed out this year’s calendar on November 5 with 69 events in the books. Carson Macedo won a series high 11 races.

In 2022, David Gravel chased Brad Sweet into the three-race finale on the Dirt Track at Charlotte Motor Speedway in one of the most hotly contested championships in Outlaws history. Sweet emerged victorious for the fourth straight year.

For the 19th consecutive season, the Outlaws Sprints will begin their season at Volusia Speedway Park for the DIRTcar Nationals from Feb. 9-11 and will return March 5-6 for another two-day show before hitting the road with a three-track swing into Pennsylvania to take on the Posse.

MORE: 2023 World of Outlaws Late Model Schedule

“Every year we continue to build the best schedule we can for drivers and fans across the country,” said World of Outlaws CEO Brian Carter is a series release. “I’m excited for the journey we’ve put together, which includes the biggest races in Sprint Car racing, our new Spring Swing through Pennsylvania, the thrill of combining the World of Outlaws and ‘Bike Week’ and so much more.”

Some tracks returning from hiatus and one brand new course include 81 Speedway in Park City, Kans. in April and again in October, Tri-City Speedway in Pontoon City, Ill. in April, Ogilvie (Minn.) Raceway in June and BAPS Motor Speedway in York Haven, Penn.

BAPS hosts its first race in more than 30 years when the track was known as Susquehanna Speedway. This midweek show will give the local Pennsylvania Posse 14 attempts to beat the traveling Outlaws.

Ogilvie Speedway is completely new to the series and makes it the 224th different venue they will have challenged.

MORE: Brad Sweet protects his place in history

Notably missing from the calendar are Vado (N.M.) Speedway Park, Cotton Bowl Speedway in Paige, Texas, Bakersfield (Calif.) Speedway and the Bristol Motor Speedway Dirt Track.

In addition to the new spring Pennsylvania Swing, the second date at Volusia Speedway will coincide with Daytona Beach’s Bike Week and bring new eyes to the sport.

Knoxville Raceway adds another multi-night show to the calendar in April, giving this track eight sanctioned events in 2023.

And of course, there are plenty of mainstays and high dollar events, such as the Memorial Day Spectacular at Lawrenceburg (Ind.) Speedway, the 35th running of the Brad Doty Classic in July and the Labor Day Spectacular at Gray’s Harbor in Elma, Wash.

Several big paydays are on the line in 2023 including the 40th annual Kings Royal at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio paying $175,000 to the winner, the Huset’s High Bank Nationals’ $250,000-to-win finale and the grandaddy of them all, the 62nd Knoxville Nationals with a total purse exceeding $1 million.

2023 Outlaws Sprint Schedule

Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 9-11 – Volusia Speedway Park (Barberville, FL)

Sunday-Monday, March 5-6 – Volusia Speedway Park (Barberville, FL)
Friday-Saturday, March 10-11 – Port Royal Speedway (Port Royal, PA)
Friday, March 17 – Williams Grove Speedway (Mechanicsburg, PA)
Saturday, March 18 – Lincoln Speedway (Abbottstown, PA)
Friday, March 24 – Talladega Short Track (Eastaboga, AL)
Saturday, March 25 – Magnolia Motor Speedway (Columbus, MS)
Friday, March 31-Saturday, April 1 – Devil’s Bowl Speedway (Mesquite, TX)

Friday, April 7 – US-36 Raceway (Osborn, MO)
Saturday, April 8 – 81 Speedway (Park City, KS)
Friday-Saturday, April 14-15 – Federated Auto Parts Raceway at I-55 (Pevely, MO)
Friday-Saturday, April 21-22 – Knoxville Raceway (Knoxville, IA)
Friday, April 28 – Tri-City Speedway (Granite City, IL)
Saturday, April 29 – Tri-State Speedway (Haubstadt, IN)

Friday-Saturday, May 5-6 – Eldora Speedway (Rossburg, OH)
Wednesday, May 10 – Lincoln Speedway (Abbottstown, PA)
Friday-Saturday, May 12-13 – Williams Grove Speedway (Mechanicsburg, PA)
Friday, May 19 – Attica Raceway Park (Attica, OH)
Saturday, May 20 – Sharon Speedway (Hartford, OH)
Friday-Saturday, May 26-27 – Atomic Speedway (Chillicothe, OH)
Monday, May 29 – Lawrenceburg Speedway (Lawrenceburg, IN)

Friday, June 2 – River Cities Speedway (Grand Forks, ND)
Saturday, June 3 – Ogilvie Raceway (Ogilvie, MN)
Friday-Saturday, June 9-10 – Knoxville Raceway (Knoxville, IA)
Friday-Saturday, June 16-17 – Beaver Dam Raceway (Beaver Dam, WI)
Wednesday-Saturday, June 21-24 – Huset’s Speedway (Brandon, SD)
Friday, June 30-Saturday, July 1 – Cedar Lake Speedway (New Richmond, WI)

Friday, July 7 – 34 Raceway (West Burlington, IA)
Saturday, July 8 – Wilmot Raceway (Wilmot, WI)
Tuesday, July 11 – Attica Raceway Park (Attica, OH)
Friday-Saturday, July 14-15 – Eldora Speedway (Rossburg, OH)
Wednesday, July 19 – BAPS Motor Speedway (York Haven, PA)
Friday-Saturday, July 21-22 – Williams Grove Speedway (Mechanicsburg, PA)
Saturday-Sunday, July 29-30 – Weedsport Speedway (Weedsport, NY)

Friday-Saturday, Aug. 4-5 – Federated Auto Parts Raceway at I-55 (Pevely, MO)
Wednesday-Saturday, Aug. 9-12 – Knoxville Raceway (Knoxville, IA)
Thursday-Saturday, Aug. 17-19 – Jackson Motorplex (Jackson, MN)
Friday, Aug. 25 – River Cities Speedway (Grand Forks, ND)
Saturday, Aug. 26 – Red River Valley Speedway (West Fargo, ND)
Thursday, Aug. 31-Saturday, September 2 – Skagit Speedway (Alger, WA)

Monday, Sept. 4 – Grays Harbor Raceway (Elma, WA)
Thursday-Saturday, Sept. 7-9 – Silver Dollar Speedway (Chico, CA)
Friday, Sept. 15 – Keller Auto Speedway (Hanford, CA)
Saturday, Sept. 16 – Placerville Speedway (Placerville, CA)
Friday, Sept. 22 – Eldora Speedway (Rossburg, OH)
Saturday, Sept. 23 – Sharon Speedway (Hartford, OH)
Friday-Saturday, Sept. 29-30 – Williams Grove Speedway (Mechanicsburg, PA)

Friday-Saturday, Oct. 6-7 – Port Royal Speedway (Port Royal, PA)
Friday, Oct. 13 – 81 Speedway (Park City, KS)
Saturday, Oct. 14 – Lakeside Speedway (Kansas City, KS)
Friday-Saturday, Oct. 20-21 – TBA

Wednesday-Saturday, Nov. 1-4 – The Dirt Track at Charlotte (Concord, NC)