IndyCar Drivers Nervous On Eve Of Texas Race

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, June 6 2012

Dario Franchitti says he's not comfortable about racing IndyCars at Texas Motor Speedway. (INDYCAR/LAT USA)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

FORT WORTH, Texas – Anxiety levels among open-wheel racing’s bravest drivers are revving-up for Saturday night’s Firestone 550k at Texas Motor Speedway, the first high-banked oval to play host to the IZOD IndyCar Series since the tragic death of Dan Wheldon eight months ago.

“I’m not very comfortable with it,” Dario Franchitti said last week in response to an inquiry about returning to TMS’ 1.5-mile quadoval. “I’m just not (comfortable) right now with the whole situation. But I will go and do my best, absolute best, to win the race. But I’m not right now. That’s just the way it is.”

Franchitti delivered his response in measured tones during a promotional visit to downtown Cowtown two days after winning his third Indy 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 27 in what was the series’ first oval-race of the 2012 season. Saturday night’s scheduled 228-lap/342-mile event will be the only IndyCar race this season contested on a track featuring 24-degree banked turns, and concerns within the driver ranks haven’t been fully allayed by the most recent round of testing conducted by sanctioning body INDYCAR on May 7.

Case in point, a profanity-laced blast at TMS fired off Sunday night on Twitter by series regular Oriol Servia of Panther/Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.

“When somebody sent it to me Monday morning, I read it (and) I was kind of taken aback,” said Eddie Gossage, TMS president/promoter. “I’m assuming he (Servia) has an issue with the fence. But again, if a guy has an issue I would call somebody. I wouldn’t talk to reporters or tweet about it. I mean, it’s no big deal. If he wants to go on Twitter, that’s up to him.”

Those are the latest salvos fired on the inherent dangers of “pack racing” at TMS with the series’ new

Oriol Servia not big on Texas. (Photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

Dallara DW12 chassis, which produced a highly-competitive and entertaining Indy 500 on the relatively flat 2.5-mile Speedway. But concerns about TMS first surfaced following a “baseline test” conducted on Feb. 21, when 2004 series champion Tony Kanaan said the aero configuration run that day likely would produce pack racing – a key element in the multiple-car crash at the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the 2011 season-finale on Oct. 16.

Wheldon, the two-time/reigning Indy 500 champion, was killed when his car was launched into the air and his head struck a fence post. As sister tracks in the Speedway Motorsports Inc., empire, TMS and Las Vegas share the same catchfence design.

Meanwhile, a revised aerodynamic package with less downforce emerged from “a range of options” available to IndyCar teams hot-lapping during an Open Test at TMS on May 7. The test drew 11 car/driver combinations, including Franchitti, the four-time/reigning series champion. Series regulars ran for 6.5-hours and produced 1,172 incident-free laps with the Dallara DW12 – named in honor of primary test driver Wheldon after his death – and powered by 2.2-liter/turbocharged V-6 engines from Chevrolet and Honda. Scott Dixon, Franchitti’s Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate, topped the speed chart with a lap in 24.6644-seconds and 212.317 mph in his No. 9 Dallara/Honda. Franchitti was third-quick at 24.8807-seconds and 210.525 mph in his similar No. 10 entry.

“We tested here…and I don’t think we’ve even nailed down the final aero spec they’re (INDYCAR) going to run,” Franchitti said during a media session on May 29. “It’s a challenge. It certainly was a challenge at Indy. I’ll say this about the car – it’s really sensitive to crosswinds. So if you get a wind out of the west coming off of Turn 2, it’s going to be really interesting here at TMS. Apart from that, there’s a lot of unknowns on how it’s going to race. Obviously, we’re trying to make it so we can put some control back in the drivers’ hands. Hopefully we’ll achieve some of that.”

Franchitti termed the Indy 500 “an absolute barnstormer” after it produced a race-record 34 lead changes.

Dario Franchitti was one of the winners last year at Texas. (Photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

But during a brief exchange with Gossage before a public Q&A session on May 29, Franchitti expressed concern with TMS’ catchfence design. As was the case at Vegas, the poles at TMS are situated on the inside of the wire mesh.

Some drivers have been lobbying to have those poles moved outside the fence. Gossage reiterated that while he is open to meeting with any IndyCar driver who wants to discuss safety, the current fencing system at TMS remains state-of-the-sport.

“I said (to Franchitti) my issue has to do with the way you guys have gone about this,” Gossage said during a promotional event at TMS Tuesday afternoon. “If you have a legitimate issue and there’s not some other agenda, then you should call, set up a meeting, present data. I’m not an engineer, you’re not an engineer – so we’ve got to listen to the folks that are qualified. Any of us can talk about it all we want but we don’t know, so we’ve got to listen to engineers.

“Dr. Dean Sicking (director of the Midwest Roadside Safety Institute in Lincoln, Neb.,) said whether you put mesh on this side or that side (of the poles) it has nothing to do with an impact. It has to do with material staying on the racetrack side of the fence, which is what we’re trying to accomplish. But yeah, every engineer that we’ve talked to said this is it – this is the best thing technology provides us today. If there’s some other technology, show it to us. We want to hear about it. Fences at every racetrack are virtually identical, and if there’s a better way I think everybody wants to know.”

Franchitti said he reiterated his position to Gossage during the brief chat. “I didn’t think he was very –what’s the word – sympathetic. Ultimately, we agreed to disagree,” Franchitti said. “I would like to see a complete new design of fence – I think a lot of the drivers would – a whole new way of doing it. Whether it’s like an ice hockey rink or something like that, I don’t know. Talk to some engineers about it now and get some minds to start to work on it.

“Kind of like the SAFER Barrier, the people at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Hulman-George family,

Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage. (Photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

ultimately put their hands in their pockets to a great degree and spent millions developing this thing that was a massive benefit for anybody who drives on an oval track. So if we can do the same with fencing, and the quicker we can do it, obviously the better. So that’s the ultimate goal.”

The Dallara DW12 chassis features wider sidepods and rear-wheel “bumpers” designed to prevent the wheel-to-wheel contact that launched Wheldon’s Dallara/Honda. Still, Gossage acknowledged that drivers remain on-edge heading into Friday’s opening round of practice at 12:30 p.m. (CDT).

“I’m sure they are and understandably so,” Gossage said. “I don’t know how to remedy that for anybody. All I know is we’ve run more IndyCar races here (23) in the last 15 years than anybody, and our safety record is pretty amazing in what is an inherently dangerous sport. That’s just a sad reality. But we haven’t had any IndyCar fatalities – thank God – here.”

Pleased that the original single-race format will be in effect Saturday night, Franchitti added, “The issue is not so much the speed as putting the control in the driver’s hands. By that I mean when you can differentiate yourself from your competitors by doing something different in the car. With the way it has been the draft has been so big you’re just able to sit with somebody and there’s no way to get away. On a normal track, if you had a better-handling car or did a better job driving a corner you’re able to pull a gap – like a Milwaukee or something.

“So it’s really about putting the control back in the driver’s hands so you’re not sitting in a situation where you’re five-deep/two-wide and you’re at everybody else’s mercy. That’s the problem. It’s kind of like the (NASCAR) restrictor plate races you see in Talladega and Daytona. When you consider that a (NASCAR) Camping World Truck runs flat around Texas, I don’t know what you could do to an IndyCar to make it so it was…you got to that level of driver (comfort).

“As I said, we’re all coming here to race and I am here to win. So that’s my position. I hope going forward that the series _ all sanctioning bodies _ the promoters, teams and drivers, everybody can work towards coming up with better solutions for things like fencing. And continue to make the sport safer.”

Saturday’s event, set to start at 7:30 p.m., (CDT) will be the 16th edition of what is billed as “America’s Original Nighttime IndyCar Race.” Franchitti led 110 of 114 laps en route to his first victory at TMS in last June’s Firestone Twin 275 opener, while Will Power of Team Penske led 68 laps in the nightcap for his first oval win. “We had one caution last year,” Gossage said. “Obviously, I hope it’s a safe race, I hope it’s a great race. I think it’ll be a great race. We’ve had a history of great races here.”

Servia, meanwhile, issued this apology on Monday: “First of all, I’m really sorry for my tweets about Texas,” he wrote at @OriolServia. “It was the wrong channel and the wrong way period. I love Texas and the Texas race fans. They have always shown their support to IndyCar and myself. I would hate to disappoint them and I have total admiration for the people of the sport and those who promote the series. My tweets were unprofessional and I apologize for my language to Texas Motor Speedway, Eddie Gossage, our sponsors, the fans and IndyCar. I should not have said those things and I’m sorry.”

Gossage, who said he doesn’t know Servia personally, noted that NASCAR suspended Sprint Cup driver Kurt Busch on Monday for profanity directed at reporter Bob Pockrass at Dover International Speedway on Saturday. “They fine people for those kind of tweets, and they don’t drop the mother-of-all curse words,” said Gossage, who wasn’t sure if Randy Bernard, INDYCAR’s CEO, would dock Servia before he gets to Fort Worth. “I’ll be trying to look him up and shake his hand and say, ‘Talk to me, man.’^”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, June 6 2012
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