Well… That was a race.
I don’t know the exact number of cars that actually ended up finishing the race Saturday night, but I know it was under 10. No matter how you slice it, that is not exactly the face IndyCar wants to be presenting to world after two wildly successful weekends in Indianapolis and in Detroit.
So, rather than go through the point by point details of the race, I’d like to take the time in today’s article and talk a little bit more about IndyCar as a series and what we can learn from the less-than-perfect race we saw from Texas Motor Speedway.
First Thing’s First: The Yellows
There are many out there right now (most of whom still wear old and faded Champ Car regalia to races) that say what we saw at the end of the race was a sham. By that I mean the mandatory yellows, which the series decided to throw to save tires from prematurely exploding or becoming so blistered that they proved dangerous, was an attempt by the series to create a more exciting race.
Now, I’m not going to go out and say this was an ideal situation. It wasn’t. But IndyCar isn’t NASCAR. It does not manufacture caution periods or stages of the race in order to create competition among the drivers and the teams. If a driver is dominating a race, then he is dominating the race, plain and simple. Unless driver’s safety is at stake, the stewards of IndyCar do a pretty good job of letting the drivers and teams do their thing on the track. Yes, they hand down penalties, but that’s not really what we’re talking about. We’re talking about situations in which race controls bunches up the field for the sole purpose of bunching of the field. That’s not what happened Saturday.
No, what happened Saturday was a situation where yellow flags were mandated every thirty laps because of concern for driver’s safety. Despite the slightly faded Champ Car hat I still occasionally wear, I get that. And you bet your behind I support it. There are those that will argue that by mandating cautions, the series was not letting the natural laissez faire nature of IndyCar to run its course. That is to say, if the tires really were that bad, why wouldn’t the teams have to come in regardless? Well, the simple truth is because that’s not how drivers or teams think. Yes, at thirty laps tires may be bald and damn near dangerously blistered, but if by staying out a few extra laps past that, a team can gain a competitive advantage, I have no doubt that every team in the paddock would do it. Simply put, IndyCar had to mandate pitstops because if they didn’t teams would have run their tires to the breaking point (and probably past it) in order to gain an edge. So kudos to the series for recognizing that.
You can, and perhaps rightly so, level a good deal of blame on Firestone for allowing the race to deteriorate to what it became, but the truth is that it’s not entirely their fault. Texas Motor Speedway was repaved and reconfigured. For all intensive purposes, it’s a new track, one that the teams and the tires have never run a full race distance on. Yes, you can test tires all the live long day, but in the mind of a driver, no matter how competitive they are, they’re not going to put the same effort in during a test that they would a race. Driver’s will push harder in a race than they will in a test. They will scuff the tires more, push them past their limit, and run them far longer than they should all, as I said above, in order to gain a competitive advantage come race time. In a test, not so much.
Could Firestone have brought harder compounds? Yes. Could they have anticipated a high level of degradation and blistering and compensated for that? Yes. But at the time, during the race, they responded the best they could and did a good job making sure no drivers were hurt or that the field was no less decimated than it already was.
The Track Itself
And here is where we come to the real heart of the problems on Saturday, the track itself. There is no easy way to put this, but, Texas is not an IndyCar track. It’s a NASCAR track. It is a wide, high banked D-Oval that requires zero lifting over the course of a lap for a normal IndyCar driver. It is a track that, if you remember well, CART cancelled due to safety concerns (namely the driver’s were experiencing loss of consciousness due to the high G-force encountered at speed). And it is a track that, perhaps most importantly, encourages pack racing.
Pack racing is not inherent to IndyCar. In fact, it is one of the most dangerous activities IndyCar has taken part in over the years. It is a phenomenon that creates more danger than it does intrigue. Driver after driver has come out against pack racing, especially after pack racing claimed the life of one of the series brightest stars, Dan Wheldon, back in 2011.
Yes, Indycars running three wide under the lights of may look spectacular on the TV screen or in person, but the reality is that that type of racing encourages the types of crashes we saw Saturday. Multi-car, high speed, stack ups that run the risk of seriously injuring any number of drivers. One mistake in a pack race by one driver can lead to eight others slamming into the wall.
Think I’m exaggerating? Look back at the past two major pack races we’ve had in this series. In Texas last year Josef Newgarden was slammed head first into the wall following contact with Conor Daly. An accident that saw him break bones but walk away lucky. Before that was Fontana in 2015. It was an exciting race to be sure, but do not forget the last lap incident which, due to close, pack racing, saw Ryan Briscoe cartwheel through the infield grass on the last lap.
Racing, and specifically speedway racing, is inherently dangerous. The silent agreement that every driver signs when the step into a car on a speedway, or any other circuit, is that this may be the last time they drive. That’s something that is universally understood. But on superspeedways, like Texas, the risks increase exponentially.
Don’t get me wrong, Texas is not a bad track. But it is a bad track for IndyCar. Yes, it’s thrilling to see these IndyCars zip by, two or three wide, at 200+ MPH. But the potential catastrophe is far, far too great and outweighs any potential ‘thrill’ we get from watching them race there. What we saw on Saturday was, thankfully, not as scary as it could have been. There were no multi-car incidents that sent drivers hurtling up into the catch fence, but the potentiality was there. That’s just what happens when IndyCars race in packs.
So what happens next? Where does the series go from Saturday onwards? Well, thankfully, there are no more superspeedways on the calendar. Texas is the only one left from the split days that saw the IRL running superspeedway after superspeedway and Champ Car jumping on the fad as well. But should tracks like Texas continue to hold a place on the calendar at all?
Tracks like Texas are wonderful for NASCAR, but not for IndyCar. They need to viewed as a relic of times past, times when eyeballs seemed to matter more than safety. Let’s get Texas off the menu for years to come. Let’s replace it with another oval, like Milwaukee for instance.
You can talk about downforce, you can talk about boost, you can propose any number of changes, but the fact remains, Texas produces pack racing and pack racing is not good for IndyCar.