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.
1070 on track passes today @TXMotorSpeedway 609 more than 2022! 2 and 3 wide at +220mph- incredible skill and precision- @IndyCar drivers #MSH/GSD!
— Jay Frye (@JayRFrye) April 3, 2023
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.