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IndyCar and Texas have an identity crisis to sort out

Jun 9, 2014, 11:00 AM EST

TMS-Group Getty Images

The Verizon IndyCar Series has raced at Texas Motor Speedway since 1997, but right now, the balance of what the racing is and what some think it should be appears out of whack – at least compared to past expectations.

TMS is a bit of a “lone wolf” on the current IndyCar calendar. As the single remaining 1.5-mile oval – in part because it’s a “legacy” event from the prior Indy Racing League era – figuring out a gratifying balance between driver and fan appreciation remains a perplexing conundrum.

Texas was rarely a “pack race” in the traditional sense during the IRL era, and even during the first few years of the merged championship where INDYCAR absorbed the assets of the Champ Car World Series. But mainly, there were still one or two dominant teams and a wealth of consistent side-by-side, or occasional three-wide racing.

Now, while this was a jaw dropping, edge of your seat phenomenon at the time, IndyCar did get lucky that two of its biggest accidents in the last dozen years at TMS occurred where they did and didn’t produce serious, life-threatening injuries.

Both Davey Hamilton (2001) and Kenny Brack (2003) had savage accidents on the backstraight, and in both cases got up into the catch-fencing. Fortunately, there were no fans seated either side of the straight for those incidents. And fortunately, debris from either incident didn’t cause major damage or injury to track safety workers or other drivers.

The racing at TMS didn’t change after either instance; it continued on the path of tight, almost pack but not exactly full pack racing for roughly seven more years. So did the danger element.

Exciting? Sure, to a higher percentage of those who attended or watched on TV. But to some, the TMS racing back then always felt in part like you were playing with fire – perhaps that’s a fair assessment given that the winner shoots six-shooters in victory lane and fire comes out of the backdrop there as well.

Then Las Vegas 2011 happened, and the concept of IndyCars racing on 1.5-milers was placed into the crosshairs. Texas survived the cuts while Vegas and Kentucky joined a scrap heap of 1.5-milers including Chicago and Kansas, among others that have not yet held another IndyCar race since.

Vegas wasn’t the single catalyst for the drawdown of IndyCar on 1.5-milers, but the events of that day certainly didn’t help matters going forward.

Anyway, it’s been left for Texas to carry the torch from 2012 onwards. And while the 2012 is hailed as the last “great” Texas race, the reasons for it going off as well as it did are threefold.

For one, there was a one-off wing package for that Texas race that has not been used since. The rear wing elements were a hybrid of the road course and superspeedway wing endplates, on top of the rear wheel guards. That helped increase downforce much more than what was there in 2013, and again this Saturday night.

Second, the tire fall-off was right in the window where it needed to be. Drivers wanted a car that was harder to drive after Vegas and could easily spread out – remember, there was angst at the time about returning to Texas beforehand, and Oriol Servia even tweeted an expletive to TMS president Eddie Gossage – yet the tire package delivered in harmony with the aero one.

Third, that year did not have Derrick Walker as INDYCAR President of Competition and Operations yet. Walker was almost placed into a no-win situation for the 2013 Texas race, where the aero element was changed to the superspeedway rear wings and downforce taken off the car, and to boot, it was his first race on the job. For all his accolades and what he’s brought to the position, Walker wasn’t in a position to influence the 2012 race and his first crack at 2013 was one of his rare missteps.

What happened this past Saturday night, then, was the medium between 2012 and 2013. Cars fell off, drivers still had to fight and hang onto their cars, and manage the tires.

At the end of the day you had a product that was decent – yet failed to measure up to the expectations of what Texas was rather than what it is now.

The funny thing is that as IndyCar fans and observers, we’ve been spoiled since the introduction of the Dallara DW12 ahead of 2012.

If a race is even remotely “boring” – or perceived as such – we decry it thusly: Sham! Abomination! Snoozefest! Some expletive combination!

The biggest thing going forward is that Texas has to figure out a way to sort out its identity from here.

What it has become is an event reminiscent of the early 1990s in North American open-wheel racing, which is to say, not a bad thing. The strategic elements still are fascinating, and in making the steps INDYCAR has done over the last couple years, the danger level for drivers has been greatly reduced.

And from nearly all the post-race quotes, you can tell the drivers like “new Texas.”

But the user expectation is still one of past Texas – the glory of NASCAR-ized open-wheel racing that often produced photo finishes and was basically the hallmark for the IRL. Consider the IRL-level crowds and consider the current ones, and it’s obvious which one the local crowd prefers.

TMS is still an integral part of the IndyCar schedule… but it needs to sort out what it wants to be from a perception standpoint.

It ain’t as good as it once was. But it can still be as good once, as it ever was.

  1. kitnamania13 - Jun 9, 2014 at 11:46 AM

    I think a lot of people who watch oval races are just hoping to see wrecks. They want to see cars get destroyed without seeing the drivers get destroyed. That’s a lot harder to pull off in an Indycar than in a stock car.

    • dmoney666 - Jun 9, 2014 at 12:42 PM

      You’re out of your mind. No way. This isn’t NASCAR. I remember the races at TMS where I was on the edge of my seat, heart racing watching these races on TV. Now? Meh. Not much to see. Yes, it was that very thin line between speed and disaster. But when those cars went wheel to wheel at over 200 mph lap after lap, coming within mere inches of killing each other? THAT was the Texas appeal.

    • indycarseries500 - Jun 9, 2014 at 2:18 PM

      You don’t know too much about oval track crowds, do you?

  2. testover6370 - Jun 9, 2014 at 1:15 PM

    I’d much rather see a driver dominate the field because they drove well and the team gave them a good car than watch a deadly accident just waiting to happen. New Texas all the way.

  3. manik56 - Jun 9, 2014 at 2:11 PM

    Did this race not get good reviews? I thought it was a great race. I wish IndyCar could get F1-like timing and scoring to the fans at home, but all in all it was a fun watch. As for the crowd at the track? There is a reason oval racing is (sadly) dying in IndyCar—no one goes.

  4. Jeff - Jun 9, 2014 at 11:10 PM

    Well last year’s Texas race was a snoozefest. This year’s was much better, but there is room for improvement. For my money the two best races last year were Indy and California. Indy was absolutely fabulous this year, and so far no other race has come even close. Close, side-by-side oval racing with lots of passing is the best.

  5. bigdcart - Jun 10, 2014 at 7:24 AM

    I watched the qualifying show at TMS on Saturday. I bet there weren’t 300 fans in attendance. The race night crowd looked to be about maybe 25K. Why continue to return to the Texas Death Bowl and cheat fate? Three races in Texas for a sport centered in the Midwest is too much.

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