Texas Racing Was Clean, But Was It Texas-y?
By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
After Saturday’s Firestone 550k IndyCar Series race, a seemingly intractable principle of auto racing went on display at Texas Motor Speedway: The principle which says that what is good for competitors is not always good for the ticket-buying fans.
It went on display when happy driver after relieved driver emerged from the cars and pronounced the aero package that INDYCAR officials put in place at Texas was a nearly perfect solution to problems Indycars have had at races at high-speed ovals; races that culminated in the death late last year of driver Dan Wheldon.
Yet to be heard from, however, are the fans. They will be heard from when ticket sales go on sale for next race at Texas – if there is one.
There was a lot of angst among teams and drivers in the weeks leading up to the race at Texas’s high-banked, high-speed 1.5-mile oval. In the wake of Wheldon’s fatal wreck at the high-banked, high-speed 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway oval in the 2011 season-ending race, competitors were understandably uncomfortable with the thought of returning to Texas.
In February, talk about a possible boycott of the race surfaced. Though the talk quickly subsided, competitors never fully threw their arms around the TMS race.
Likewise, INDYCAR leadership, which appears to have adopted a scheduling philosophy of the fewer
ovals the better, never really seemed to stand up loud and proud for the Texas race.
The fear, of course, was that the close-quarter, wheel-to-wheel pack racing that doomed Las Vegas – racing that was the result of drivers being able to put the high-downforce cars wherever they wanted on the track – could produce similar results at Texas.
As the Texas race approached last week, INDYCAR officials went to work on adjusting the aero package of the new Dallara DW 12 cars. Wings and wickerbills were the focus as the search for the proper amount of downforce – downforce levels that would “place the racing back into the hands of the drivers” – was pushed front and center.
On race day, it was apparent that INDYCAR had nailed it vis a vis driver concerns. Wheels never seriously touched, cars stayed on the track and afterward the voices from the paddocks proclaimed it all a huge success.
“I have to say this is the best racing I’ve ever had on an oval,” Team Penske driver Will Power said. “You had to lift, you had to look after your tires, you had to really drive the thing, it was moving around. That is just the sort of racing that we need at these sort of tracks.”
And that seemed to be the prevailing sentiment among his peers.
Prevailing, but not unanimous.
Driver/owner Ed Carpenter, an oval-racing ace, said this: “It was just a weird race. I know we are all worried about pack racing but I prefer the way we raced at Texas before. And I may be on an island in that sentiment. Hopefully the fans enjoyed the race never the less.”
Texas races used to be thrill rides for the fans as well as the competitors. The racing was wheel-to-wheel just an inch or two apart. The front edges of seats in the TMS grandstands – and those of couches in viewers’ living rooms – were worn down to the nub during Texas races.
The suspense level was Hitchcockian. Lap after lap. And it was intense. It was like Talladega squared as the threat of the big one always seemed to be just a blink away.
And as with Talladega, that kind of intense drama was what made Texas, Texas.
And also like Talladega, many drivers hated it; didn’t want to be there and could not wait to get the heck
out of Dodge after the racing ended because the risk factor was also Talladega squared.
I hate to speak for fans – collectively or individually – but my perception is that they absolutely do not want to see drivers injured. Nobody does. Nobody stood up and applauded that day at TMS when Kenny Brack’s car lifted off and then disintegrated against the fence near Turn 3.
But I think late NASCAR beat writer David Poole was correct when, during a discussion of what makes racing exciting, he said that fans don’t want to see competitors die but they want to see competitors cheat death. They want real-life drama.
But the horrible thing is, in racing, the drama, the blood is real.
The search for acceptable middle ground moved to Texas ground last the week.
The Firestone 550 was clean. But, it also produced a race in which just six cars finished on the lead lap. And among those six were rather significant spaces of open track. So significant were some of the gaps that leader Graham Rahal whacked the outside wall in Turn 4 on the final lap but was able to wobble to the finish line in second place.
The cars did go side-by-side, but the distances between them was in feet rather than inches.
We won’t know if fans enjoyed the racing as much as most drivers or if, like Carpenter, were left wanting, until attendance is announced after the next race.
Whenever that race is.
Over the weekend, a hot rumor making the rounds was that the series might not be coming back to TMS next season. Then, late Wednesday, it was revealed that TMS might host a second race this season to fill the gap created by the cancellation of the race in China.
Which is all interesting. Because, while you can debate whether or not Saturday night’s race was boffo or hollow, it is next to impossible to say that Texas should be taken off the IndyCar schedule.
Texas has, over the years, been correctly called the No. 2 venue on the schedule. Until very recently, it attracted crowds of well over 100,000 fans on race day. Sometimes, twice a year.
Saturday’s crowd slipped below that but will still likely end up being the second-biggest of the season.
Quite simply, Texas needs to stay on the schedule.
In whatever form the racing takes. INDYCAR easily owes TMS and fans of the series that much.
– Jim Pedley can be reached at email@example.comNo Comment