My. Favorite. Race. Whatever you opinion of pack racing, the IRL or oval racing in general is, it was Texas that fully brought me back into the fold. I had forgotten how heroic these guys and girls were when they took to the race track. It was this Saturday night shootout that reminded me of the bravery required to wheel these things around. Take out the pack racing and the walls are still close and the speeds still fast; the action will not miss it and neither will we. For good or bad, we are here this weekend and if Indy was any barometer of what big oval track racing will look like in 2012, this could be the event of the season. I have supreme confidence in the DW12 and the track designers’ ability to keep our drivers safe and I expect nothing short of a spectacular event in every aspect of the word. This is the race outside the hallowed grounds of 16th and Georgetown and I expect this year to exemplify that sentiment.
The Three, I-got-too-soap-boxy-for-five, Things to Watch
Pack Racing – The two ton elephant in the room this week is the threat of a pack racing returning to the high banks of Texas. Teams have tested at the 1.5 mile facility multiple times in preparation for the Saturday night race, but the jury is still out on whether we will indeed see this type of race. There have been opinions voiced from both sides of the line and there is no agreement on what we should expect this weekend. Ed Carpenter has stated that he believed the series has taken too much downforce away and feels the race will be a bit more strung out than usual. If this is the case and drivers are able to find a bit of separation, I think we will end up seeing a race more akin to the Hanford Device races of years past. The DW12 simply punches too large of an aerodynamic hole for anyone to be content riding around wheel to wheel. The drop back, slingshot may be an old trick revived for a style of oval racing not seen in open wheel for nearly a decade.
Teams will be using the Indianapolis wing configuration in conjunction with the smaller profile bumpers seen at road events. Every other aspect of the aerodynamic setup is free for teams to experiment with. This really opens the play setup options for teams to play with. In years past, there have been minimum wing angles to stall the cars at a maximum speed that was determined to be a “safe” number by guys sitting in an office and not in a car. With only 550 horsepower on tap, the chances of a Firehawk 600k repeat are next to nothing hence the relaxing of the wing angle rules. This gives even more weight to the thought that we could see another Indy 500 style shoot out for the lead… only crazier. There is no need to fall in line to make the corner at Texas and that momentum can be carried even farther ahead of the passed car. I literally cannot imagine a scenario where this chassis and engine package just rides around lap after lap, wheel to wheel.
Oval Specialists – Unfortunately, we are in an era of American open wheel racing when most drivers are purebred road course racers, and the dyed in the wool oval racers are few and far in between. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Oddly enough, some of the sharpest sticks on an oval were not bread in the good ol’ U.S. of A. Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti, Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan and of course the most poignant example Dan Wheldon; all foreign drivers who have come to love racing on the silly US ovals. Maybe not the nose to tail, wheel to wheel madness seen at facilities similar to this in the past, nonetheless they are all oval specialists and lovers in their own right. The skill needed, even at Texas, should not be underestimated and the commitment to run strong at the front all night long not forgotten. Places like Texas are where the heroes of our sport are created; just ask Ed Carpenter. And now we have a fresh batch of American rookies to give the oval-meisters a run for their money.
Texas Finale? – It has been stated many times before, but is worth mentioning again… more than once. This could be the last time we see indycars run on the high banks for a very, very long time. Texas Motor Speedway manager Eddie Gossage and Speedway Motorsports Inc. CEO Bruton Smith have had what seems to be and on again, off again affair with indycar racing. The events at Las Vegas and the continued political posturing that has followed looks to have soured the SMI and TMS opinion of our fair sport. Not that I can blame them as it has been painfully uncomfortable to witness the politicking from this side of the fence, I cannot imagine how it would be from their seats. The strong crowd, about 70,000 people filled the 191,000 person track in 2011, could be our only hope. That, and giving those faithful open wheel supporters a killer race. We know the staying power of an event is closely linked with its attendance figures so I am not totally ready to write off Texas quite yet. There is hope if the event surpasses what we have seen in previous years. Different, but better may be our mantra through the weekend.
Pole – JR Hildebrand – Panther Racing are no slouches at the ovals and I really want JR to have a few confidence building moments in his sophomore year. He could be meteoric in the series and a strong second year is incredibly important to that.
Winner – Takuma Sato – REDEMTION!!
Epic Performer – Simona De Silvestro – No immediate black flag for her! SdS will show enough speed to stave off a black flag until she finds herself a lap down. If she can survive for more than 15 laps, that would be a huge accomplishment for Lotus.
Biggest Loser – Will Power – We are about to embark on the most important three weeks of Powers championship run… and he trips out of the gate. Not that he will finish behind Simona, but I don’t see him contending for a much needed oval win.
Although I have spewed on about how much I like the insane pack racing that made the IRL famous, I understand there is a time and a place. It may be physically easy to drive around Texas flat, but the mental aspect of the sport take center stage here. Even with the superior safety technology incorporated into our chassis and at TMS, doing it at 220 miles an hour is just asking for trouble. But that doesn’t mean Texas’ place on the schedule should be in jeopardy. Forget about ovals, we need races period! Sixteen isn’t enough and the loss of any, especially and oval would be a big blow to the series. Let’s all hope for strong attendance and the best race we have ever seen. The series needs it and so do we. Strap in; we’re about to kick off three straight weeks of adrenaline filled racing. I hope you all are ready.