Instead of the usual five point rundown to review the weekend, I want to prose a bit on the current state of indycar at Texas.
On a warm Saturday night last weekend, in front of a sparse looking crowd, indycar took to the high banks of Texas Motor Speedway; a facility that is touted year in and out as the second home of indycar racing. For many years that was the honest to goodness truth, but in recent years it sounds more like a PR and ticket selling line than an actual statement of fact.
I think of Barber Motorsports Park, Iowa Speedway and the Streets of Sao Paulo Brazil as the contemporary second home of indycar. Those local fans are enthusiastic, knowledgeable and come out in droves. I know that Tony Kanaan’s presence more than helps out the Brazil event and if you plunked the 30k seating capacity of Iowa into the 191k (!) Texas grandstands, the place would look absolutely deserted. But that is the main issue: attendance concerns at Texas should not be a year in and out talking point.
I love Texas Motor Speedway as much as anyone and I personally have no problems racing on any 1.5 mile oval. In fact, I had always thought they were some of the most exciting stops on the schedule up to and including last year. However during the most recent edition, there was definitely some sparkle lost on the event.
There were points in the race where mid corner speed dropped to below 190 when just two years ago guys were able to keep it above 210. Does that 20 miles an hour make a difference? I think so, however we all are told no one can tell a five mile and hour difference at Indy but we are already well above 220 there so perceptions are quite different at the flat oval. As the wild asphalt circus wore on, I felt like I was in the twilight zone watching a fast NASCAR race. Not that tin top racing is bad, just not my cup of tea and especially not on the 1.5 mile ovals.
It wasn’t as if the drivers weren’t working; everyone but Helio looked to have their hands full all night long. Make no mistake, this was not the wide open, hug the white line racing that we saw with the IR07, it was quite the opposite. There simply was not enough grip for the drivers to have the ability to run balanced and repeatable laps throughout the tire stint. Drivers couldn’t push at any point in the night and side by side racing was nearly nonexistent as drivers lost just too much time fighting opponents for position.
My worries about the longevity of Texas on the schedule began last year when the series had already taken a bit too much downforce away last year. And for this year’s event, the series rolled out the ultra-low drag Indianapolis aero configuration and proceeded to cleave even more downforce from the chassis in a bid to make the drivers work even harder than in 2012. And by doing so, they totally changing the on track product that had local race fans filling the grandstands not more than five years ago.
The pure pack racing seen at similar tracks in years past is not acceptable in this series, but neither is what we saw on Saturday night at the second home of indycar. During the race, I flashed back to Bump Day just a few short weeks ago and the trials and tribulations of Michel Jourdain Jr. The RLLR team was having major issues getting that chassis up to speed. The runs were so slow, that they cars aerodynamics didn’t even have a chance to help the chassis find its way through the corners and only compounding the mechanical problems of the teams.
This low drag package seen at Indianapolis and Texas, and slated for use again at Pocono and Fontana, needs that speed to create the chassis balance and comfort window for drivers to be able to actually race each other and not just hang on for 324 miles.
Only adding fuel to the fire, Firestone brought a slightly softer tire to enhance mechanical grip, but the cars didn’t have the aero grip to take full advantage of the stickier compound. Drivers were sliding on new tires, taking away grip and trashing the tires in only a few laps, which would be followed by drivers surviving until the next tire stop. Passes were not made due to a faster trailing car; they were made because the leading car had no tire left.
My armchair quarterback opinion is they oval package simply needs more horsies. More air moving over the wings equals more grip. More grip equals more tire life, and more tire life give the ability back to these racers to actually race. We know an aero limited package only bunches the field together, and the current tire limited formula creates the separation and skills showcase that was sorely missing from indycar racing for so long, but we have clearly gone too far.
The paying customers in Texas spoke, and they were not totally satisfied with the new package the series brought in 2012; so much so that it looked like many of them decided to stay home for the 2013 edition. And if they were watching the race on TV, they most likely will not be won back in the near future. We always came to Texas to watch these daredevils race their rears off in a test of focus and skill. This year was a test of tire conservation and the ability to keep it between the lines; not racing.
Sadly, I cannot say that Texas is my favorite race anymore. It just doesn’t have that Texas zing, but that doesn’t mean I won’t watch. The race is still a high point in the season for me, I just hope that the third time is a charm and the series nails down a better package in 2014. I just hope we get to go back. After the bad mouthing last year, the wholly different type of racing this year, and weak attendance, Gossage cannot be happy. We may yet find out if he is a partner or just a race promoter sooner than later.