Best race no one saw? Saturday’s practice session worked as Texas has a phenomenal race? Will INDYCAR be back? A deep look

FORT WORTH, TX — Sunday’s XPEL 375 was surprisingly good. An insanely close finish, 15 lead changes with 12 of the 27 starters leading at least one lap, I’d say Texas delivered.

The thing is, I wish I could say, “as advertised” but that would be a lie. That’s part of the problem but more on that later.

Unfortunately, we didn’t expect much out of Sunday’s race since the second lane of the Texas Motor Speedway was essentially a “no go zone.” Or was it? Leading into the race, everyone was still skeptical on how racing much above the first lane would go.

However, the race itself actually was actually pretty sporty. While you couldn’t go into that lane very often, you could still make passes.

Saturday’s special 30-minute session was a huge help in making it that way. Also, with the downforce levels where they were and how well the tires played out, you could follow closer and make moves around the outside entering Turn 1. You’d just have to make sure you quickly get down once making your maneuver.

“The track was so much more raceable today compared to a year ago,” said third place finisher Marcus Ericsson. “It was really fun out there because you could actually overtake people, go side by side through 1-2, even 3-4 sometimes. It was really raceable out there. It was really fun to race today. We had the last two years where it’s been difficult to overtake.

“That was a huge improvement. I hope also it was more fun to watch as well.

“Ovals, it’s a lot of fun to race, a lot of tactical and all that. Sometimes when we go racing, it’s very hard to overtake on the ovals, then it gets very static racing, you get frustrated because you cannot really make moves.

“That was not the case today. I think whatever INDYCAR has done, they’ve done a great job. We need to sort of understand what we did right this weekend to get the racing this much better because it was a lot more fun when you knew you could get around people, not easy, but you could get around people. That was making a huge difference for the enjoyment behind the wheel, I would say.”

It allowed passing. We saw a last lap pass on the outside in Turn 4 for which Josef Newgarden credited Saturday’s one-off session for allowing him to make it.

“I think the session they ran yesterday cleaned up a little bit of the second lane,” he said. “It really did. I wouldn’t have been able to do what I did in three and four last year. There’s just no way. I would have hit the fence for sure.”

Second place finisher Scott McLaughlin agreed.

“They almost need to do that not only here but everywhere,” he said. “No one’s going to run the slower lane. People don’t do that. We’re focused. Like Gateway, I’m sure Iowa. I agree with Josef. I think extra downforce was helpful.”

I mean, what’s the difference between Texas and Indy now? It’s not like you can pass on the outside at Indy either. You have to be strategic and make it happen. That’s exactly what we saw.

The problem was, not many actually saw it. Sunday’s crowd was a complete embarrassment. Shame on the fans or lack thereof.

Rahal and Castroneves crashed near the mid way point – Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

That has me still wondering if the NTT INDYCAR Series comes back in 2023 or not. The second lane is the second lane. We saw INDYCAR do everything that they can do to help make it come in. Luckily, the drivers adapted and did make moves. The problem now is, is it worthwhile coming back with playing host to a bunch of aluminum?

This is like that Fontana race a few years ago of one of the best races that no one saw.

This isn’t a good look for INDYCAR to have a crowd that you wouldn’t be able to know if it was staged in the 2020 pandemic sanctioned races or not. For INDYCAR races and tracks to work, they need packed houses.

Texas was far from it. One could say this will be the least attended race on the schedule. For a track that was hosted fans in excess of 100k, this was embarrassing. Haven’t I mentioned that word before?

That’s what this was.

For a fan base that screams they want more ovals, where were you? Why do you never show up to them?

I hope the TV ratings come out to rival the Indy 500 because you certainly didn’t do your part and show up in person. Maybe you watched on NBC….

While I get this is a problem for all sides, the fans aren’t given a free pass on this either. Yes, I get the racing at Texas has been lackluster over the last decade and yes I get the second lane was the biggest topic of conversation entering Sunday’s race, but that doesn’t mean you just ignore the race all together. At what point do you make this series appointment viewing whether in person or on TV?

You make other things appointment viewing. Why not INDYCAR? There’s always excuses and I’m telling you for those that didn’t show, you potentially cost INDYCAR another oval.

In the track and INDYCAR’s defense, no one showed up for the Cup race last Fall either to which NASCAR and drivers themselves called out the attendance. Well, here we are again which could lead me to believe that this isn’t necessarily an INDYCAR fan base problem. Maybe it’s a Texas fan base problem.

If that’s the case, is it the track not promoting or attracting fans? That could be it. Honestly it plays a part. I mean it’s clear that in order for ovals to work in INDYCAR you need support events too. That’s what makes road/street courses as well as Gateway work. They have constant action all day.

Texas didn’t provide that.

So I get the build up and entertainment being low which doesn’t bring fans out. So I side with the fans in that aspect. That’s on the track. So is the racing surface. This track was ruined with the repave and reconfiguration. It doesn’t even work for NASCAR either as one could say this is the worst track in both NASCAR and INDYCAR.

They have their faults in this too.

INDYCAR has a hand in it as they can promote too but they’re at the bottom of the blame game. They’ve tried. They’ve done almost everything that they can but nothing seems to be working. Which leads me to believe this marriage may be over.

The relationship started in 1997 and unfortunately started having problems in 2012 when the racing went from an exhilarating pack race to a spread out snoozefest. INDYCAR has actively been trying to help the racing ever since over the last decade but it’s a hard one to nail. Too much downforce and too much grip from the tires leads up back to a pack race. Too far the other way gets you four lead changes for an entire race. The sweet spot is somewhere in the middle but that’s a hard line to find since a minor change in either direction can lead to an extreme race on one side or the other.

Then, once they’ve found it, the track hasn’t cooperated in the sense of the traction compound ruining a second lane.

Now, maybe they have something to build off on though.

So, where do we go from here? The drivers want to come back. The series and track want to make it work. The fans don’t seem to want to. The racing and track as is won’t change unless Texas gets another repave/face lift and I don’t see that occurring unless SMI likes what Atlanta did so much that they make Texas replicate that.

There’s no contract in place now. The relationship is now over. Do they come to an agreement in the coming months on a new contract for the future?

INDYCAR can’t have only Indy as the only superspeedway on the schedule so they need to find a replacement which is harder than it seems. Yes, Milwaukee has been mentioned, but that race hasn’t always had the fan interest and is also a short oval.

The fans scream for more ovals but Pocono, Milwaukee, Phoenix and now Texas would like to have a word on where your money is for your mouth…

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