Getting the racing package right for their annual stop at the Texas Motor Speedway is one of the more challenging aspects each season for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES to handle. What makes this one of the most difficult aspect is that you have to have so many factors corresponding in the right direction and doing so at the same time.
Downforce packages, tires, ambient conditions, etc, miss in one area and it could go in an entirely different direction quickly. Go too far in one direction and you get a pack race to which no one wants to see anymore. Go too far in the other direction and you get a snoozefeat for which no one can pass and would want to see either.
Texas is home to some edge of your seat racing. It’s what made this annual stop one of the highlights of the entire season. Photo finishes were the norm. In wake of the fatal crash in Las Vegas that killed Dan Wheldon in the 2011 season finale, INDYCAR knew that they had to make some drastic changes. Having a Daytona type race on 1.5-mile tracks was tempting fate and they unfortunately found out the hard way on that fateful October afternoon.
INDYCAR then decided in 2012 to find more separation on these tracks. A new car and a new aero package would do the trick. However, they went a little too far with it.
9 lead changes, mostly during pit sequences and just six cars on the lead lap in 2012 followed at Texas. The margin of victory was 3.920-seconds. 4 lead changes and just 5 cars on the lead lap happened a year later. This time, the margin of victory was 4.692-seconds.
INDYCAR now had another problem on their hands. The less than riveting racing kept the crowd away. No one was coming to North Texas to swelter in 90-100 degree weather to watch a terrible spectacle of racing.
Over the last decade, INDYCAR and Texas have tried so hard to make a happy medium. Some years (2016) they went too far. Other times (2018) they went too far the other way.
Where’s the fine line?
They think over the last few years, they’ve found it. Firestone and INDYCAR have worked diligently at bringing the right tire and car package to Texas. Unfortunately, Texas then ruined it themselves.
By spraying the 1.5-mile track with traction compound and doing a reconfiguration of the turns, it’s ruined the racing. It’s pretty much made anything above the lower lane in the turns a “no go zone.” Touch the treated areas and you become a passenger of your own race car.
That’s why the INDYCAR shows in 2020 and 2021 were dismal. It was a high speed parade still, but this time, the cars were luckily closer together. They showed that you could race and you could follow behind cars better, but unfortunately, you couldn’t pass them because everyone was riding the low lane.
Last year we entered this race weekend wondering if it was going to be the last. However, after a thrilling show with a photo finish, the future of the NTT INDYCAR Series and Texas isn’t as bleak as it once was. The cooler temperatures but run in the daytime conditions plus an outside lane practice on Saturday evening helped allow for a second groove to race on for Sunday’s race.
Heck, the race winning pass came from the outside in 2022. 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. Unfortunately, we didn’t expect much out of last year’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 last year. “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.”
Now, what happens this time around?
Scott Dixon thinks that the racing package itself, well it may actually be even better.
“I think this year the NTT INDYCAR SERIES has done a good job I think of bringing some updated aero pieces which I think will definitely tighten the pack and allow for some side-by-side racing with the addition of a full-field high line practice, which I think will help as well as we sort of did definitely in St. Louis,” Dixon said on Tuesday afternoon via a weekly INDYCAR zoom call.
“I know it’s definitely more downforce in the 200-to-300-pound mark maybe. Then I think I don’t remember if we ran barge boards there last year. You have the full strokes on the underwing. There might be a couple of other things.
“Yeah, I think previously we had trimmed maybe sidewalls, strokes, yeah. It’s definitely I think a pretty big adjustment as far as adding downforce to the car for the race.”
Dixon says the combo of aero, the weather being cooler and that second lane practice being back again, this could very well make Sunday’s race the best we’ve seen at Texas in a while.
“All three of those should make, one, the second lane a little more usable, which will definitely tighten up the pack, and ultimately make it a lot more racy for everybody,” he continued.
“I think for the drivers you just hope it doesn’t become a pack race. I don’t think it’s going to be that extreme.”
If that’s the case, then this weekend is all down to being dependent on that second lane and if the surface is raceable like it was last year.
“Half the time we don’t realize some of the stuff until we actually turn up,” Dixon said. “So I’m not actually sure they have applied some of that texture to the high lane. I think with the addition of the high line practice that will give everybody at least some idea of what that grip level is like.
“You’re right, the traction compound will probably be the biggest defining point I think that you deal with. Just last year when you got yourself out of trouble, you got onto that stuff, it was difficult to keep it all in one spot, keep it off the fence.
“Hopefully they haven’t had any of that recently laid down, and that may make it a much easier situation for ourselves going into the weekend, especially for the race.”
INDYCAR has confirmed that no traction compound has been put down between last year’s race and this one, so there’s a real possibility this could be a good show again.
The only other factor in this is what kind of potential troubles having NASCAR tire rubber (Goodyear) being down on Saturday in comparison to INDYCAR’s tire compound (Firestone). However, Dixon says with the amount of cars here this weekend (28), they could get their rubber down quicker and it shouldn’t be too much of an issue.