FORT WORTH, Texas – When Texas Motor Speedway opened 25 years ago, the palatial 1.5-mile speedway on the wind-swept plains of Denton County immediately became a staple of the IndyCar schedule.
Playing host to two annual races from 1998-2004 that once drew crowds of 100,000, Texas was regarded as the second-biggest track in the Indy Racing League (before the 2008 merger with Champ Car brought the Long Beach Grand Prix). It ranked behind only Indianapolis Motor Speedway with its reputation for insane pack racing, razor-tight finishes and bombastic promotion by track president Eddie Gossage.
Scott Dixon has a record five victories at Texas, but the track also holds a special place in the six-time series champion’s heart as where he clinched his first championship with a runner-up finish on Oct. 12, 2003 – during a seven-year run when Texas held the IRL season finale.
INDYCAR AT TEXAS: How to watch Sunday on NBC
STARTING GRID: The lineup for the green flag in the Xpel 375
“Obviously, I love this place,” Dixon said. “I think it’s been a lot of highs with the occasional lows. To win my first championship here back was a big moment and something I never thought was possible. It definitely has a sweet spot for me.
“Things have changed a lot in motor racing in general since those days.”
Unfortunately, things especially have changed in IndyCar at Texas, which has turned into a single-groove racetrack for the series since the application of traction compound for its NASCAR races three years ago.
Responding to driver complaints about a treacherous outside lane that races like a sheet of ice, IndyCar ran a special 30-minute practice session Saturday to attempt to work in the high line.
Downforce tweaks also have been added this weekend, and the track has continued to work on trying to remove the residue left by PJ1 (which is no longer used in NASCAR).
“Up until 2020, I liked coming here,” Alexander Rossi said. “It was hairy. It was intense at times. It was a good event. It was a great race. Even in ’18 and ’19 when they reprofiled Turn 1 and 2 (after a repave) and had gotten away from the side by side racing, there was still raceability to it.
“The past two years, it’s just been miserable. You sit there and struggle not to crash when following someone.”
That’s lent an air of desperation heading into Sunday’s XPEL 375, and open speculation among drivers about whether the racing quality might determine whether this is the last IndyCar race at Texas for the foreseeable future.
It would end a memorable run that began with a controversial finish on June 6, 1997 when A.J. Foyt slugged race winner Arie Luyendyk in victory lane (after Billy Boat incorrectly was declared the initial victory).
“I love Texas, because it’s got a lot of IndyCar DNA in it,” two-time series champion Josef Newgarden said. “It’s always been a staple track for the series. And I think it’s a place we should be running at. Having said that, it has been difficult that we’ve not been able to produce racing like in the past with these cars. A lot of it is just not meshing with the compound put down on the NASCAR side.
“That’s disappointing, but if we can find a solution to it, I think it would help tremendously. It would make the races a lot better. Either way, Texas deserves a spot on the schedule. We’ve love to be here. We love this track and this part of town, so I would hate to lose it.”
That reflects the sentiment within the IndyCar paddock. Several drivers surveyed after qualifying Saturday said Texas Motor Speedway, which sits in the country’s fourth-largest market and has a population of nearly 9 million within a 45-minute drive, should remain on the schedule regardless of whether the racing improves this year.
The six-time champ also has five wins at Texas… it's safe to say he likes it there. pic.twitter.com/0GgaSBElY0
— IndyCar on NBC (@IndyCaronNBC) March 20, 2022
“It’s important for several reasons,” Dixon said. “I think it is a great market for us. Do I think we could a better job? Yes for sure. That goes for a lot of places, and that they’re willing to want to do a better job is part of growing the series. The last few years have been tricky whether they’ve been good races or not-so-great races. It’s been really hard to balance that. I feel we should have done more planning. They moved the date this year, and we had 10 months to figure some changes out. I know that’s not always easy.
“But I think you’ve got to try different things, too, so we’ll see how it goes, see how the crowd is. At least it’s not going to be 100 degrees, which will be a lot better for people in the stands.”
After a quarter-century of running in May and June, this will be the earliest date on the calendar for IndyCar racing at Texas (which once played host to NASCAR’s premier series in mid-March to early April).
General manager Rob Ramage, who took over day-to-day operations at the track last August after Gossage’s retirement, said ticket sales were trending ahead of last year with a weekend forecast of temperatures in the mid-70s.
Ramage told NBC Sports he has talked with IndyCar about returning in 2023, and IndyCar CEO Roger Penske also has indicated this weekend that the series could return.
“TMS loves this event,” Ramage said. “I’m optimistic (about IndyCar returning), very much so. It’s a future that I want.
“We’ve had conversations and continue to have conversations. It’s all a matter of what works, what works best, and everyone figures it out. There had been spectacular racing moments at TMS by IndyCar. With that said, what I worry about is what I can control. What I can control is the journey of the fan. I can’t control the racing product.”
One potential saving grace is that Texas fills an important role as the only superspeedway on the schedule that can replicate the speeds and drafting of the Brickyard.
Newgarden said IndyCar would need a replacement with similar parameters if Texas were to be dropped, and that might be a taller order than letting the longtime partnership lapse between the series and the track.
“It’s critical we have a good mix of all the types of tracks and having something like this between an Indianapolis or a Gateway or Iowa,” Newgarden said. “If things were to change in the future, we’d probably need to figure something out.
Said Simon Pagenaud: “I like it here. I like banked ovals. I just think you can’t give up on the place. Do we need some help from the track? Yeah. I’m sure they can help us. We just have to work hand in hand, and IndyCar is very proactive. I just want to make sure we keep coming back here.”
Driver-owner Ed Carpenter has been racing in IndyCar at Texas since 2003 and will be making his 22nd start Sunday at Texas. Though IndyCar has “such a history here, and I’ve always loved it,” Carpenter believes Texas’ scheduling future depends on collaboration.
“I think the series would like to come back here, but it takes two to tango” he said. “Eddie’s not here. He was always a big fan of IndyCar, so we’ll just have to see how it goes.”