Do IndyCar and Texas Motor Speedway have a future together? Series’ veterans say yes

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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.

“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.”

Alexander Rossi ‘fits like a glove’ with his new IndyCar teammates at Arrow McLaren Racing

Alexander Rossi McLaren
Nate Ryan
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PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – There are more than three dozen fresh faces on the Arrow McLaren Racing IndyCar team, but there was one that Felix Rosenqvist was particularly keen to know – Alexander Rossi.

The driver of the No. 7 Dallara-Chevrolet is the most high-profile new hire for McLaren, which has expanded to a third car to pair with the No. 6 of Rosenqvist and No. 5 of Pato O’Ward.

And there is another layer than Rossi just being the new kid. McLaren marks only his second team in NTT IndyCar Series after seven seasons at Andretti Autosport, where he began with a victory in the 2016 Indy 500 and was a championship contender for several seasons.

Rossi is a mercurial talent, and when things go wrong, the red mist quickly descends (and sometimes has led to feuds with teammates). He went winless during two of his final seasons at Andretti and was out of contention more often than not, often bringing out the prickly side of his personality.

Yet there has been no trace of the dour Rossi since joining McLaren. The pragmatic Californian is quick to remind everyone he hasn’t worked with the team yet at a track (much less been in its car), and there surely will be times he gets frustrated.

But it’s clear that Rossi, who made five Formula One starts in 2015 after several years racing in Europe, already is meshing well with an organization whose England-based parent company has deep roots in F1.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” Rosenqvist said Tuesday during IndyCar’s preseason media availabilities. “I think Alex kind of has that bad-guy role a little bit in IndyCar. He’s always been that guy, which is cool. I think we need those guys, as well.

“Actually having gotten to know him, he’s been super nice, super kind. He fits like a glove in the team. I think it fills a role where Pato is kind of like the crazy guy, I’m somewhere in the middle, and Alex is the more engineering guy in the team. I think Alex has more experience, as well. He just feels like a guy who knows what he wants.

“Yeah, good addition to the team and great guy at the same time.”

There are many reasons why Rossi’s transition from Andretti to McLaren should be smoother than his abrupt move from F1 to IndyCar seven years ago. Namely, he no longer is the only newcomer to the team’s culture.

“It’s been kind of a good time to come in because everyone is finding a new role and position and kind of learning who’s who, finding everyone’s strengths and weaknesses,” he said.

But while Rossi might have questions about the team, he has none about the series. Unlike when he arrived at Andretti without any oval experience, Rossi joins McLaren with his IndyCar credentials secured as an established star with eight victories, seven poles and 28 podiums over 114 starts.

Even in his swan song with Andretti, Rossi still managed a farewell victory last July at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course that snapped a 49-race, three-year winless drought. It seems reasonable to believe he immediately could re-emerge in his 2017-19 title contender form.

“I know the series, and I know kind of everything that goes into American open-wheel racing vs. the European open-wheel racing, which is really the biggest transition,” Rossi said. “Certainly it’s the largest kind of team switch. I’ve obviously driven for different teams in the past in Europe, in sports cars, whatever, but never really in my full-time job. I’ve driven for the same organization for a very long time and have a lot of respect and fabulous memories with those people.

“So it has been a big kind of shift, trying to compare and contrast areas that I can bring kind of recommendations and experience to maybe help fill the gaps that exist at Arrow McLaren. Again, all of this is in theory, right? I don’t really know anything. We’ll have a much better idea and plan going into St. Pete (the March 5 season opener).”

He has gotten a good handle on how things work at its Indianapolis headquarters, though, and has been pleased by the leadership of new racing director Gavin Ward (who worked in F1 before a championship stint with Josef Newgarden at Team Penske). McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown also seems omnipresent on both sides of the Atlantic, making appearances at IndyCar races seemingly as much as in the F1 paddock.

“I think what’s very cool about Arrow McLaren is we do have the resources of the McLaren F1 team,” Rossi said. “They very much are being integrated in a lot of respects. It’s not two separate entities. McLaren Racing is one organization that has its people and resources and intellect in kind of everything. It’s been pretty cool to see how that can be an advantage to us in terms of people, resources, simulations, software, kind of everything. We’ve been able to kind of rely on that and use that as a tool that maybe other teams certainly don’t have.”

That will be helpful for Rossi with the methodologies and nuances of racing a Chevrolet for the first time after seven seasons with Honda.

And of course, there will be the relationship with O’Ward, who has been McLaren’s alpha star since 2020.

Rossi was in a similar role for Andretti, which raises questions about how McLaren will handle having two stars accustomed to being the face of the team. But O’Ward said IndyCar regulations should allow each driver to maintain their own style without being forced to adapt as in other series.

“At the end of the day, as much as teammates will help in order to gather data, it doesn’t mean they’re going to specifically help you in what you need because it’s a series where you can really tailor the car to what you want,” O’Ward said. “Rather than in Formula 1, (it’s) ‘This is the car, you need to learn how to drive this certain car.’ In IndyCar, it’s very different where you can customize it to what you want it to feel like or drive like.

“From past experience, I think Alex likes a car similar to what I do. I do think we have a very strong car in certain areas, but I definitely think he’s coming from a car where that other car has been stronger than us in other racetracks. I feel like if we can just find gains where we haven’t quite had a winning car, a podium car, that’s just going to help all of us.”

Though Thursday at The Thermal Club will mark the first time the trio works together at a track, Rosenqvist said he’s hung out a lot with Rossi (both are 31 years old) and deems his new teammate “well-integrated” in the simulator.

“I think the fit has been good with him, me and Pato,” Rosenqvist said. “On a trackside perspective, it’s obviously huge to have always a third opinion on things. Every driver’s opinion is valuable in its own way.”

Said O’Ward, 23: “It’s been great. (Rossi has) been great to have around. I think he needed a fresh start. I think he’s excited to really work with all of us, create the strongest package.”

Ever the realist, though, Rossi still is tempering some of his enthusiasm.

“Again, we haven’t really done anything yet other than some meetings and some team activities together,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for what they’ve done in IndyCar and also their prior careers. I think that we all bring something a little bit different to the table, which I think is really unique in terms of not only personalities but driving styles and experience levels.

“I think we have the ingredients to really be able to develop the team and continue to push the team forward to even a better level than what they’ve shown in the past. It’s been a really positive experience. Really I have nothing at all negative to say and can’t actually wait to get to work, get on track and start working together.”