June 9, 2013

IndyCar’s close finishes can return to TMS, but it’ll take an exact balance

Pack racing produces excitement for fans but fear for the drivers at Texas Motor Speedway’s high-banked oval.

When Helio Castroneves wins a race at Texas Motor Speedway, he makes it fun to watch.

He climbs the fence, gives out massive hugs, yells into microphones and invites everybody to join him on the podium for some gun-shootin’.

Now to get some of that fun into watching the race.

Castroneves’ 4.7-second victory Saturday night in the Firestone 550 took the air out of the national prime-time telecast, touted by IndyCar and TMS as a chance for the country to catch one of the tight finishes the series and track are known for producing.

Two of the eight closest finishes in series history have come in Fort Worth — Sam Hornish Jr.’s .0096-second victory over Castroneves in September 2002 and Jeff Ward’s .0111-second victory over Al Unser Jr. in June 2002.

But three of the last five IndyCar Series races at TMS have been decided by more than a second. Last year, the margin was 3.9 seconds.

So while Saturday night was a showcase for Castroneves, now a four-time winner at TMS, runner-up Ryan Hunter-Reay and third-place finisher Tony Kanaan thought about how to make the racing tighter.

They have ideas. But it won’t be easy to find exactly the right one for TMS and the other high-speed ovals on the series.

The right idea requires a balance between how quickly everyone wants the tires to “fall off,” or wear out, and how much speed to put in the cars.

It is all related.

The more the tires fall off, the more often pit strategy and fuel come into play. The less the tires fall off, the faster the cars go.

The faster the cars go, the more “downforce,” or grip, they require. More grip means more of a chance to go “flat-out,” or at maximum speed. But the more drivers are going flat-out, the more they race side-by-side, creating the pack racing they hate and yet the sense of excitement fans want.

“It’s so difficult to get the package exactly right with the downforce and the degradation of the tires, and as a series we’re working toward that,” Hunter-Reay said.

It was a crash in a pack of cars that resulted in the death of Dan Wheldon on the Las Vegas oval two years ago. It had drivers rethinking the place of ovals in the series.

But they do not want to leave TMS. The track and the series know they benefit from each other.

“Firestone could easily make a tire that we could run around here,” Hunter-Reay said postrace.

“But we don’t want that,” said Kanaan, sitting beside him, presenting the counterpoint.

“It needs to be the right combination,” Hunter-Reay said.

“You need to remember. We do not want a pack race,” Kanaan said. “That is what we don’t want to have — going overboard a little bit.”

TMS’s close finishes came when pack racing was more common in IndyCar. But rule changes, new body styles and the changing attitudes of the drivers have changed the kind of finishes TMS is used to producing.

The close finishes can certainly return. But only if IndyCar, the track and the drivers pin down a new competitive balance that returns the old style of racing and yet keeps it safe.

“I think we’ve nailed it perfectly in the past,” Hunter-Reay said. “We’ll get it right, for sure.”

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