Ryan: IndyCar got its ‘old Texas’ back, but will the series get to keep its breathtaking racing?

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FORT WORTH, Texas – Alex Palou received a very prescient IndyCar scouting report on Texas Motor Speedway from Chip Ganassi Racing technical director and engineer Julian Robertson three weeks ago. The details were to the point.

Find the classic and intense nail-biters that once ranked the 1.5-mile track’s races as the circuit’s greatest spectacle outside the Indy 500 … and absorb as many spine-tingling laps as you possibly can.

“Julian said there could be a chance of having some pack racing,” Palou told NBC Sports with a smile after Sunday’s thrilling PPG 375. “So I watched that. But obviously, I didn’t expect to have that as much as we did. Because honestly, it was a lot.”

Said Helio Castroneves, a four-time winner during the glory days of the Fort Worth track in the mid-2000s: “I hope the fans enjoyed it. I hope everyone enjoyed it. Because this is what Texas used to be. Man, it was exciting.”

How good were 250 laps Sunday at Texas?

With the exception of the Indy 500, this easily was the best IndyCar has been on an oval since the June 27, 2015 race in Fontana, California. That day left both fans and drivers gasping for air and questioning the fine line that drivers walk between being daredevils and crash test dummies at 220 mph-plus.

Texas produced the same captivating and scintillating show but with less guilt as drivers generally raced at the limit without stepping over.

Several credited the combination of wise aerodynamic downforce additions by IndyCar and the fading of the regrettable PJ1 traction compound (last applied in 2019).

There were 26 lead changes – third in IndyCar track history and the most since 32 in October 2001 (when the track still held two annual races) – and even that stat seems to undersell the nonstop action Sunday on its high banks.

According to Trackside Online’s Steve Wittich, the 375-mile race had 482 passes for position — almost 200 more than last year and 300 more than the average at Texas since 2018. IndyCar president Jay Frye also noted the jump in passing.

With three laps remaining, winner Josef Newgarden banged wheels with runner-up Pato O’Ward on the frontstretch while furiously racing for the lead – and it was among so many indelible moments that O’Ward wasn’t even sure the stars had made contact.

“It’s pretty insane,” the Arrow McLaren driver said. “It must look cool.”

Said Newgarden: “I just want to see Texas race the way it should race. I think most people would look at today and say that’s how Texas should race.”

IndyCar got Texas back Sunday.

Now the question becomes whether the series gets to keep it – and that won’t be answered until this fall at the earliest. It’ll be after Texas plays host to its lone NASCAR Cup Series race Sept. 24 (having lost one of its annual weekends because of lackluster racing since a 2017 repave).

Track president Mark Faber (who presided over his first IndyCar race Sunday) said parent company Speedway Motorsports would chart a course for the future depending on how NASCAR’s Next Gen model performs in that event (after a star-crossed 2022 debut that was plagued by lightning delays, scorching temperatures and tire failures.

The IndyCar season will have been over for two weeks by then, but that 500-mile NASCAR playoff event might as well be a de-facto addition to the 2023 schedule.

IndyCar fans might want to cheer as hard as they did Sunday for good racing with the Next Gen when NASCAR comes to town — making Speedway Motorsports more inclined to stay with the asphalt’s status quo.

Otherwise, a resurfacing of Texas is under consideration, and if it happens, the racing likely won’t be as good for IndyCar’s next trip to the Lone Star State.

“If they change the track and resurface it or anything, it just ruins it for us,” Will Power said. “For us to find the tire and downforce level is really hard. But they probably will do what’s best for NASCAR, not for us.

“But honestly, if they saw the race today, they’d be crazy to do it. The resurfacing would ruin it if they did that. That’s about the best balance you’ll get (at Texas today). Any more (downforce), and it’s just a shitty pack race. Any less, and it’s spread out.”

Just like the Cup Series at Daytona and Talladega, the racing always worked on a fine line in the halcyon days off Texas. Pack racing can be entertaining to watch but to a degree.

And not to the point where it puts drivers in the untenable position of being inches apart and two or three wide several rows deep.

That’s why Newgarden, who ran his accelerator wide open during the final stint, thought the racing “had even been taken up a notch” from the old days of “three-wide the entire time.

“I wouldn’t want to see that,” Newgarden said. “I think you can go too far nowadays.

“We’re kind of a step above where I like to see the cars at. I know from an entertainment standpoint this had to be significantly better than last year. It just had to be. It felt packed up for most of the race and definitely at the end.

“Where we go from here, it’s hard to say. Old Texas is hard to beat. The configuration was great. The track surface was better for us, we could run all three lanes. I’d like to see that back, then we can start peeling off downforce off the cars. We’ve just chipped away at it. But this year we’ve gotten it really good.”

With a legitimate second lane allowing for outside passes for the first time in at least five years, Palou noted that the danger level in Sunday’s race actually was roughly on par with last year when several drivers lost control and crashed with less grip.

“I prefer this 20 times more than last year,” Palou said. “Last year was about risking everything to go around the outside. Today was more like knowing that you could be there and manage your bars and weight-jackers to run up there. So yeah, I prefer this. It’s more dangerous, but I don’t know if it is more dangerous. We had more crashes the previous years because people would run up there and crash, so I think it was better.”

Sunday’s crowd indicated things are trending in the right direction.

After a dismal turnout that barely cracked four figures last year, Faber confirmed that attendance had increased by a double-digit percentage (without having the final numbers). The swelling crowd was despite a threatening weather forecast and a competitive sports and entertainment weekend in the Metroplex (which had Taylor Swift and the NCAA Women’s Final Four in town).

“I thought it was just a great, compelling, intense race,” Faber said. “We knew everyone leaving today would say we had a great day out here.”

After last year raised many questions about whether IndyCar and Texas would remain together, Faber said there are no such concerns now.

“I tell people we’re going to grow it every year,” he said in victory lane. “This was another step to bringing fans back.”

But the track’s next step with IndyCar will depend on what happens this fall with NASCAR – which is why Power lobbied Faber hard about the surface’s future during a media event two weeks ago.

Along with resurfacing, a reconfiguration (possibly to a shorter track) also has been floated (an idea that Power said also could work for IndyCar), though Faber indicated the track likely would remain at its “iconic” 1.5-mile shape.

“I told Will we want your ideas, but we have to talk about IndyCar and NASCAR,” Faber said. “We’ll see this fall. (Speedway Motorsports president AND CEO) Marcus Smith has already talked about working with iRacing on three models of what to do with the configuration. We’re working on it, and we always want to get better.”

IndyCar at Texas got much better Sunday – let’s hope that is factored into its future there with the same ferocity as its racing.

‘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 six 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