Ah Texas, you used to be a great IndyCar facility. It seems like only yesterday that the motorsports world watched in awe as you provided us with photo finishes, close racing, and side by side battles. Remember the year that Jeff Ward snookered Al Unser, Jr. in an incredible photo finish? That was awesome. Year after year, you stood tall as one of the most anticipated races on the calendar. Hell, even the stuffy folks on the IMS Board of Director’s have gone on record to acknowledge Texas Motor Speedway as one of the most important facilities for the sport.
It is for all of these reasons that the farce that the IZOD IndyCar Series staged at Texas Saturday night was so disappointing. In case you missed the race, be grateful; you didn’t miss much of anything. Due to a decision by the sanctioning body to bring a low downforce / high tire wear aero-tire package to the track, the on-track racing product suffered greatly. The same package was used for the Texas race one year ago, and the thought process that went into the design of that aero-tire package is a prime example of one of the many things that are holding this series back.
Flash back to 2011. As we all remember, in the season ending race at Las Vegas, we lost Dan Wheldon in a fiery multi-car accident that forever changed the sport of American open wheel Racing. There were a variety of factors that led to that accident, one of them being a phrase that has become taboo in the world of IndyCar: pack racing. Even though a great many other factors played into the death of Wheldon, it was “pack racing” that was the ultimate scapegoat in the whole ordeal. Instead of placing the blame on the inexperience of certain drivers in the field, or the propensity of the pre-DW12 IndyCar machines for creating excessive lift, “pack racing” served as the easy excuse for what caused the wreck, and as such, IndyCar and its fan base went on a nearly six-month crusade in finding ways to eliminate this “pack racing” on the series’ high banked 1.5-mile tracks (of which only one remains…Texas), where pack racing was perceived to be the most prevalent. This led to the development of the rules package put in place for the 2012 Texas race, which was the same package used for the 2013 event last weekend.
The 2012 Texas event came and went, and instead of the cars riding around in packs, the field spread out. The fan base, still mourning the loss of Wheldon, praised IndyCar and its drivers for settling upon what was viewed as a “safer” and “more driver-oriented” package that spread the field out. The IndyCar community was so overjoyed to see that pack racing was eliminated at Texas that they conveniently overlooked the fact that the race itself was mind-numbingly boring. In an effort to rid the packs of forming, cars couldn’t even remotely race close to each other due to the low downforce and lack of grip in the new package. Side by side racing was gone, replaced by four second gaps between the top 5 cars and little on-track action. But no one cared about that at the time. The illusion of safety had returned, and everyone was happy.
Yet here we are again, one year later. The same package returned, and the race played out much the same way. The race was a total parade, with the leaders able to utilize clean air and escape from the pack, while the rest of the field spread out, unable to stage lengthy side by side battles due to a lack of downforce. Sure, many of the hardcore IndyCar purists enjoyed the tire strategy and the perceived “driver-oriented” nature of the race, but the rest of the viewing audience? They weren’t quite so impressed. Respected media types came out of the woodwork slamming the race for being a snoozefest. Even long time IndyCar beat writer Robin Miller, usually a staunch supporter of so-called “drivers’ races” expressed his disappointment, going on record saying that “the series laid an egg on their biggest national television stage (besides the Indianapolis 500) in years.”
So what went wrong? What is it that has turned the usually competitive Texas into a snoozefest for two consecutive years? The IndyCar community overreacted, that’s what happened. Texas was never a true “pack race”. It didn’t really need to be fixed. While the packages used for the Texas races prior to 2011 were never really perfect, the only “pack racing” that would be seen in those races would be for the opening seven to eight laps or so. Once the tires started to wear and the driver’s struggled with handling on Texas’s bumpy surface, the field would naturally spread out into safe mini-groups of three to six cars, all while maintaining plenty of side by side action and allowing for great finishes. While more certainly could have been done to make the package a bit more balanced, such massive downforce and tire adjustments were totally unnecessary. Texas simply got lumped in with the starkly different Las Vegas facility. Vegas is super smooth and allows massive packs to stay stuck together for entire fuel runs. Texas is not and was never like that. But in order to please the masses who figured 1.5-mile IndyCar racing must always equal massive NASCAR style packs, a kneejerk reaction was made, and as such, the 2013 and 2012 Texas events were totally neutered of the action that made the track loved in the first place.
I am in no way saying that the pre-2012 Texas events were perfect. Slightly more tire wear and a slight reduction in downforce were needed to lead to a perfect package for Texas. An aero-tire package that is halfway between the one used for this year’s Indianapolis 500 and the one used for this weekend’s event in Texas would likely lead to a perfect balance between close racing, drafting, and needing to manage the tires, all factors that make for a good race, and enough to please folks on both sides of the pack racing debate.
If nothing else, one can only hope that INDYCAR learned something from their overreaction, and most indications would indicate that they actually did. New INDYCAR CEO Derrick Walker stepped up and took the blame for the poor racing this week, stating, “In the end, I decided to stick with what we had and I think based on the outcome I was wrong. I want to apologize to the fans, teams and drivers for making the wrong choice but we’ll learn from it and get it right.”
Kudos to Mr. Walker for taking the bull by the horns and recognizing the truth in the matter. Saturday night’s event was a stinker, but comments like the one Walker provided give hope that perhaps, for the first time, this sanctioning body is willing to learn from its mistakes. IndyCar had a golden opportunity to make some noise on Saturday night, and it grossly missed the mark, but with a brain trust in place that seems committed to learning from past blunders, such problems will hopefully be less prevalent in the future.
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