FORT WORTH, TX — Now that we’ve gone through both NTT IndyCar Series races at the Texas Motor Speedway this weekend, the answer to the main question on how the races would look has been answered. Would the PJ1 areas affect both races again this weekend?
The answer was unfortunately, yes.
But, after 212 laps of racing on Saturday and 248 laps more on Sunday, it left me wondering, what might have been if the PJ1 traction compound stain wasn’t a factor. See, INDYCAR has to first be applauded. They did everything in their power to help the show.
The series added more downforce this year in comparison to last and Firestone brought a new tire for the competitors too. From my vantage point, both worked in terms of closing up the action. Drivers were getting runs on one another, it’s just that they couldn’t do anything with it, because if you veered high into the stained area above the bottom lane, you were going to be a passenger at that point.
No one dared to go into that darker area of the track because once you did, you’d crash. Just ask James Hinchcliffe, Will Power and a few others.
“Yeah, it’s just slippery,” Graham Rahal said. “It’s just slippery. We can’t really touch it. Obviously didn’t reapply it for the weekend. Doesn’t really matter. It’s an artificial grip, I guess, for the Cup cars they use to make it a little racier for them. It just didn’t work with us.
“Unfortunately we’re kind of dealt the hand that we’re dealt. We have to make the most of that. I know INDYCAR tried their best to do the tire dragging and everything else, not necessarily apply rubber, but peel that PJ1 off and get it out. As you can see, it is so dark, stains the surface so terribly. When you walk on it, you can feel it. It’s like ice. Roughly from Firestone numbers, 20 to 25% less grip the minute you touch the dark stuff.
“I think it got better as guys accidentally ran half a groove too high, it did get better. But still it would take a lot of running I think to get that to really peel up.
“The positive of what we saw today was there was a lot of lifting, even some braking into turn one, downshifting, all that sort of stuff. If over time they don’t reapply that PJ1, they let it slowly wear off, I think this place can become a two-plus-lane track again. Going to take a while to get there, take people that are brave enough to try it, or try it by accident. Doesn’t matter. Try to apply some rubber.
“It’s tricky, man. It’s not ideal. Not ideal for us.”
Saturday’s second place finisher in Scott McLaughlin said he didn’t dare touch that portion of the track either.
“From my perspective, you just can’t use the second lane,” he said on Saturday night. “It’s very difficult at three and four, and at one and two. Unfortunately that’s just how it is. That’s all I’ve experienced here, so that’s all I know. I still think you can get some reasonable runs, but it just makes you probably a little bit nervous to maybe throw down on the high side into one or into two.
“I saw firsthand what happened to Hinchcliffe. He got dirty air pushed up, went up onto the PJ1 and he was gone.”
Third place finisher on Saturday and Sunday’s race winner, Pato O’Ward, agreed.
“From my side, same as Scott. Honestly I didn’t really try going up there,” said the Arrow McLaren SP driver. “I didn’t want to make a stupid mistake and hit the wall. But it’s still a no go zone in my book.”
O’Ward said that he does feel like they made the racing package a little bit better, especially from very high deg to low deg tires when guys have many laps on them or brand-new. He thinks we saw more passing around, but it’s still “really, really tough. Honestly, all around I just feel more confident, this is my second time, second race here in Texas. That makes a big difference.
“But, yeah, I think it was a step in the right direction. It’s not quite there to be able to make the race as crazy and chaotic like an Iowa. I feel like it was kind of like a Gateway in a way, in a speedway version obviously. There was some passing but not quite two lanes.”
Graham Rahal agreed.
“I mean, I thought it was decent,” said Sunday’s third place finisher. “I think there was some opportunities. At the test here we ran barge boards, like what’s available at Indianapolis. I thought the barge boards at the test really helped us run a little bit closer, helped maintain the front tire for me. Then it was determined those aren’t allowed. I understand it, but I also think something like that in the future to look at as a positive.
“I do think the series has worked hard. I don’t think we should beat everybody up on this thing. People poured a lot of time into getting this race better. I thought it was better than last year personally. Way more guys finished on the lead lap. There was more passing. I thought it was an improvement in the overall package. Is there more to come? Sure, guys. But the track is what it is. We’re trying to do our best to work around it.
“I thought the aero package, a little more improvement that could be done. The guys worked hard. I thought it was better.”
Josef Newgarden echoed their sentiments too.
“I would agree with Graham,” said Sunday’s runner-up. “You got to take the positives. Everyone has put a tremendous amount of work into this. Both the series, the track, everybody involved, the teams trying to help out with feedback.
“I think it was an improvement from last year, as well. I agree. It was racier. People followed a lot closer, less dropoff. I think it was pretty close to being good. You’re just a little hand tied here with the one-lane track, to be honest. If we could get more lanes, we could get more usage out of the track, I think you’d have a much racier race.
“A lot of what happened today was it turned into a fuel mileage situation. There’s not much you can do about that. Whenever it gets to that point, everyone is going to take it up, you saw nearly the whole field trying to fuel. You get into one of those situations with a caution at the beginning that creates it, you just can’t do much about it. Everyone is going to try to race.
“I thought at the end when it got racy again, it was definitely a good improvement.”
Saturday’s race winner Scott Dixon said that he felt like he wasn’t sure what effect the PJ1 had on the race but he does feel like it’s to a point to where “everybody tries to steer clear of it.”
He said that the only time you could even dare to use it would be earlier in the run, but once you keep going on the bottom, the marbles start to accumulate on that area of the track too and makes it even more of a problem. .
“In practice I made a couple passes round the outside in one, and got maybe half the car on there,” he said. “But I think there’s a lot of us, as we went through these long green-flag runs, I didn’t really want to get up there not because of the PJ1, I think it might have been okay, what they’ve done to the application, running tires over it, taking a bit of it off has definitely helped the difference.
“But once you do get these long green runs, there’s just a lot of marbles up there. As we saw from some of the accidents, probably most of them were just getting into the dirty part of the track.”
As to how you can change it?
“Yeah, I don’t know,” said the six-time series champion. “I think it’s something that definitely a lot of us need to look at. It’s got to make sense. Maybe we do need to come here and do a two or three or four day test to try to figure it out.
“You don’t want it to be easy. The direction we went this year, I didn’t really enjoy it just because the deg didn’t seem as much. It was easier if we had qualifying, like I already said, going to be easy flat for everybody. This is meant to be difficult. It’s not meant to be easy.
“But the good cars are meant to be fast, and the other cars that maybe haven’t got their setups sorted out will struggle. You would like to see a lot more of that.
“Last year I think probably 25 laps into a stint you were onto lap traffic and passing through, whereas this year it was almost 40 laps or maybe a little bit more. The pack was a little bit tighter. But still when everybody goes the same speed, it makes it very tough to pull a move off.
“I don’t know. I don’t think there’s always an easy answer. I think this has been true for INDYCAR and CART and a lot of different formulas, Formula 1 the same thing. You have to be careful to make sure that it doesn’t become like a DRS situation where it’s too easy. It’s got to be difficult.
“I know there’s definitely some ideas in the works. Hopefully we can get to a track and actually apply them and test them. It’s too hard to show up and try to think they’re going to work.”
The thing is, getting the package right at Texas is as tough as anywhere else. Usually you have to deal with battling the right amount of downforce levels. Too much, you get a pack race. No one wants that. Too little, well you get spread out racing that no one wants to watch either. The line between the two is a razors edge.
Then, you get the tire factor in too much degrading and you separate the field too much too. On the other end of the spectrum, too hard of a tire tightens everything up. The balance between the downforce levels and tires is hard enough.
Then throw in the usual Texas heat and now the PJ1 compound stained areas and you get a nightmare combination. INDYCAR did the best that they can and we should thank them at least for their efforts.