The NTT IndyCar Series season opener was met with high expectations. After waiting almost three months later than the season was initially supposed to start, we got a primetime race on network TV in the midst of a global pandemic. Most places are still closed, meaning more eyeballs would be on this race. The drivers even thought that we could see a potential for a pack race as well. While that’s not the safest race we could have, looking back on what we saw on Saturday night, anything would have been better than we occurred.
Ultimately, the presentation didn’t meet the expectations.
It all started with Takuma Sato crashing in qualifying and not being able to start the race. Then, three Honda cars had electrical problems just as we were about to fire the engines. After that, five laps into the race, TV went to a commercial. It was a mess. From then on, the passing was limited. We witnessed a high speed, 200 mph parade.
Most of the drivers had said prior to this weekend that they had some more than normal nerves heading into the 2020 season opener at the Texas Motor Speedway. The start of every new season would produce the usual pre race nerves. But, the 1.5-mile track isn’t an easy one to race on in general and then factor in no one being in the race car since February and the last Indy Car race occurring 258 days ago, and you get a scary race for the 24 drivers competing in it.
Plus, you have a new Aeroscreen and all of the unknowns from that device being in place for the first time in race conditions. Most of the drivers had never been in an oval with this piece on.
Not only do you have these factors, you also have an unknown from the Firestone tires too.
Then, they get to Texas on Saturday and encounter a new issue — a traction compound in the corners. The track applied this prior to the NASCAR race on it last November. While they tried to get it off, it created a mess of things.
The compound is put in the middle to high lanes in the corners for more grip on the 1.5 mile race track in order to create more lanes of racing for the much heavier stock cars. For the INDYCARs, the compound is like driving on ice. They weigh far less than a NASCAR and are much lighter on downforce. When getting into it, your car just wants to break loose.
We saw it happen with Ed Carpenter and Ryan Hunter-Reay in practice and now Takuma Sato in qualifying.
“It’s pretty slippery,” said Graham Rahal. “If you enter too shallow, the car doesn’t want to turn at all. You dance on a fine line.”
Neither Josef Newgarden nor Scott Dixon attribute the traction compound as to what caused Sato’s crash though, but rather his line in general. They say that Sato typically runs a higher line in that area and that is what likely turned him around.
“(Takuma) Sato was running pretty high on entry last year, which can expose the rear of the car especially,” Dixon said of Sato’s crash. “Just where the track kind of flattens off before you hit the banking can be kind of weird.
“Like in the race, you can have many a moment where you’ll start to turn in, then you kind of have to turn straight again just because you lose a lot of the support from the banking of the car.”
Newgarden, Dixon and Hunter-Reay all said though that they were warned of the compound prior to the weekend but were told it was removed. Despite that, Hunter-Reay, confirmed to us that the substance was the reason for his incident in practice.
“Yeah, absolutely was,” says Hunter-Reay after qualifying fourth for tonight’s race. “They warned us about it earlier, saying that it’s more of a stain at the moment. There is no grip to it. There’s nothing there that’s going to help you. That’s fine. But any time anybody’s been on it now, it’s been super slick, even in turn three and four.
“It’s strange. I mean, it’s very dark, which usually all my years of racing you see dark, you think that’s going to be a quick side, that is going to be rubber, something to help you. Yeah, there’s no traction about it right now. It’s tricky.”
Hunter-Reay said that there was no way for the compound to come in as it does during a NASCAR race weekend because it hasn’t been applied in months and it’s still causing chaos. We saw that too as no one ventured up to even test it out.
Ed Carpenter finished fifth on Saturday night and said this was all about track position and that under the circumstances that they were in, no one could do anything about it.
“It was about hanging on tonight for me,” said Newgarden who finished third. “Most people had a tough time getting by. But it still happened. I still got passed here and there.
“I would say it was mostly a track position race definitely. But there are variables that have made that partly the case, like you mentioned. With the pandemic, it’s been very difficult to get up to speed and test new tires with specifically a new car with the Aeroscreen that’s on there.
“It’s hard to blame really anybody. We’ve been trying to work best with the situation that we had. I think now that we’re back on, we’ll be able to improve that going forward.
“But it was a hard night to pass. I think it will get better in the future as we get rolling here.”
Newgarden, said that from what he understood, the traction compound wasn’t really even there. It was more of just a stain from the prep from last November but now it was a different color.
“If you look at the way it takes temperature, that part of the track during the day is probably hotter. It could be less grip because of that.”
Also, Dixon noted that while he was skeptical of a pack race earlier in the week, once he got into practice, he knew that it wouldn’t be the case anymore. Without this being a true night race, the grip levels wouldn’t ever really come in anywhere.
“We were a team, one of two, that actually hadn’t tested in this configuration yet before we got here,” Dixon said. “I think if it cools off, even the race has moved up now, I think we’re green at 7 or just after 7, a shorter race. I don’t think it’s even going to get dark.
“We’ll get the sun behind the grandstands. I think sunset is around 8:30 or 8:35 tonight. We should be finishing around that time. We won’t run as long or deep into the night as we typically do where the grip level gets really high.
“I think the chances of a pack race are a little bit out the window.”
When the drivers were already trying to be cautious for the race, throw the aspect of the traction compound and now the heat and you were handed a parade. Why risk getting out of the low line and have a high chance of a crash? Even if you have a run on a car in front, if you pull out to pass in it, you’re going to lose ground by having to get off the throttle.
Hence, what we saw. It was a shame.