It doesn’t hurt to try, right? The NTT INDYCAR Series is doing everything that they can to make this race at the Texas Motor Speedway work. The marriage though has been rocky at best and what they’re about to do on Saturday is arguably the last ditch effort to make this relationship last past 2022.
See, INDYCAR has been coming to the 1.5-mile Fort Worth area race track every year since 1997. It’s been a great partnership that saw TMS once produce some of the most exhilarating moments in INDYCAR history.
But, that was with the old pack racing style. The drivers and teams weren’t keen on that type of racing and even before Dan Wheldon’s tragic death at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in October 2011, they were trying to go in a direction to make some separation on these types of tracks.
From 2012 onward, they set out to accomplish that goal. The days of edge of your seat racing with danger that could occur in any given moment was practically gone. I’m not saying it’s a good or bad thing, but facts are facts that the racing at Texas has been drastically different from 1997 through 2011 and 2012 through now.
We’d see nine lead changes in 2012. Just four in 2013. The racing improved a little bit after as INDYCAR and Firestone did everything they could to find the right balance, but when they did, it seemed like they went a little too far in either direction.
That’s why the crowds have diminished more and more over the last decade.
The thing is, getting the package right at Texas is as tough as anywhere else to do so. 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.
INDYCAR and Firestone have tried. They felt like the last few years that they’ve gotten the right balance. The cars can follow closer than before but it’s not a pack race. The tires still fall off. The problem is, due to the PJ1 traction compound that was applied to the NASCAR race weekend a few years back, INDYCAR has never gotten a chance to show it off.
The track applied this prior to the NASCAR race on it in November 2019. Between then and the June race of 2020, they tried to remove it. They thought they had done so but so much was applied it created a slippery stain.
The compound was 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.
That’s why the racing at Texas the last two years has been a high speed parade without much action. We saw five lead changes in 2020. Just three in Race 1 of 2021.
“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.”
Last year, they added more downforce 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,” Rahal said last year after the second race. “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.”
Last year’s second place finisher in the first race, 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 after the Saturday night race. “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 (James) 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 last year, 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.”
So, off we go back to Texas this weekend but this time, INDYCAR has found another solution. Set aside a special practice session for drivers to just pound the pavement in that second lane only.
Firestone has helped in giving 10 sets of tires from last year’s batch. They’re trying here folks. They really are. Some teams have elected to not even try it out but these drivers elected to be the Guinea Pigs here. Will it work? No one truly knows. At least they’re trying.
“I do think the series has worked hard,” Rahal said last May. “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.”
If it works, then we could have a great race and that could potentially lead to a new structured contract in place between series (INDYCAR) and track (Texas) to keep the series coming back for years to come. If it doesn’t work, then I fear this relationship is too fractured beyond repair.
Texas isn’t going to spend millions upon millions of dollars to repave the track again. They just did that a few years ago. Why do it a second time?
NASCAR brings in millions upon millions of dollars of revenue to the track to host the All-Star race now for the second consecutive year as well as a playoff race. INDYCAR’s TV contract is a nice upgrade but it’s no where near NASCAR’s. Plus, the attendance has trailed off.
Redoing the track to accommodate INDYCAR isn’t a wise business decision for Texas. That’s why this falls on INDYCAR’s shoulders even though they didn’t create this mess to begin with. This is honestly the last ditch effort and glad they’re trying.
Saturday’s 30 minutes has a lot riding on it. This will likely dictate INDYCAR’s future here. This race has moved from June to May now to March. It’s gone from primetime on a Saturday night on network TV to a Sunday afternoon in March. Will it be back in 2023?