June 10, 2012

Drivers blaze path to future for IndyCar, TMS

Next year has a chance if IndyCar, TMS follow the drivers' lead.

The drivers gave it a thumbs up.

Now it's up to the heads of the IndyCar Series and Texas Motor Speedway to figure out if they can put on another race next year.

It should not be a tough decision.

Unless pride gets in the way.

Which is always possible when human beings are involved.

But one set of human beings, the drivers, at least got something done last week.

They faced their fears about the 1.5-mile oval at TMS and said let's not put it on the track, let's fix the cars. They agreed to reduce the downforce, or grip, on the open-wheel rockets they drive, making them less likely to stick to the banking of the track like a runaway train.

They gave up some speed for it, but they gained more control of the car, making it less likely they'd race in packs, where a twitch the wrong way could mean wheel-to-wheel contact.

No one wanted a repeat of anything that looked like Las Vegas last October, when that kind of mistake triggered a catastrophic accident that resulted in the death of Dan Wheldon.

Saturday night's Firestone 550 was the first race since the tragedy on the same kind of track, so everybody was a little nervous.

But the drivers were right with their downforce approach. The field spread out. There was passing. Cars spun and hit the wall, not other cars. On new tires, they zoomed. Tony Kanaan and Ed Carpenter drove aggressively. Scott Dixon, Will Power and Ryan Briscoe stalked each other.

Five drivers led over the final 86 laps. The winner, Justin Wilson, came out of nowhere when the would-be winner, Graham Rahal, skidded up the track with two laps left.

"From my perspective as a driver, yes, it was a great race," Wilson said. "From the seat I sat in, and I had the best seat in the house, I really enjoyed it. From a driver's point of view, I would definitely give it a thumbs up."

Tellingly, Wilson and Rahal were the most outspoken drivers in the meeting that brought about the agreement about the downforce.

Wilson is an Englishman who did not come up as an oval racer. Like other European veterans with street and road course backgrounds, he has every reason to be uncomfortable on ovals. Rahal is an American with an oval pedigree. His father, Bobby, won the most famous oval race in the world, the Indy 500, in 1986.

They could easily approach the question of whether ovals belong in the IndyCar Series from opposite sides. Instead, they and their colleagues made something work.

Series head Randy Bernard isn't jumping up and down to make a case for ovals. He has said he'd like about a 60/40 split on street/road courses and ovals, and that the aim of the IndyCar Series is to present their drivers as the fastest and most versatile in the world.

A Spanish driver, Oriol Servia, sent out an uncomplimentary tweet about TMS last week. This year's Indy 500 winner, Dario Franchitti, isn't a big fan of high-speed ovals, either. Two of his closest friends, Greg Moore (who introduced him to his wife) and Wheldon, were killed in oval accidents.

But demonizing tracks like TMS seem to have cooled people like Eddie Gossage. The TMS president correctly points out that TMS has one of the best safety records in all of racing. Gossage won't say it, but he is surely stung that TMS -- where the IndyCar Series has run more races than it has anywhere else, where it has had some of its closest finishes, where in its infancy it had one of its first eager partners, where it gets its best attendance outside the Indy 500 -- was the reported target of a driver boycott.

"It's a head-scratcher," he said last week.

Only 69,000 showed up Saturday night, the smallest crowd I can remember for an IndyCar event at TMS.

They're human beings. Maybe they sensed the bad vibes.

It's not too late for next year. Maybe they'll get a different vibe by then.

Carlos Mendez


Twitter: @calexmendez

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