IndyCar hasn’t been in this favorable of a position in years, and Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage is hopeful the open-wheel series can take full advantage of the opportunity.
The series is two weeks removed from the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, a historic moment that has generated buzz and publicity that must be carried through the season.
With Texas providing a major market to showcase its talented drivers and its sophisticated race cars that fly around the track faster than any racing series that comes to town, IndyCar would seem to be in position to re-engage a fan base that has drifted toward NASCAR.
“This is the time and the year to do it,” Gossage said. “We’ll see Saturday.”
The No. 1 way for that to happen is the quality of racing must improve at TMS. This is a track that once saw thrilling finishes, including a margin of 0.0096 of a second (Sam Hornish Jr. over Helio Castroneves in the 2002 fall race). In fact, eight IndyCar races have been decided by less than one-tenth of a second in the track’s history.
But a year ago Scott Dixon blitzed the field and won by more than seven seconds. Three of the last four races have been decided by more than 3.9 seconds.
The drastic shift comes down to a simple factor — safety. Pack racing on ovals such as Texas is dangerous. One bump can lead to disaster. Dan Wheldon was killed in 2011 after an accident at Las Vegas.
Months before at Texas, Dario Franchitti held off Dixon in the first of twin races to win by 0.0527 of a second — the last race decided by less than one-tenth of a second at Texas.
So is it even possible for IndyCar to get back to those glory years while keeping drivers safe?
“Well, they’re going to have to,” Gossage said. “If you go back and look at the tapes [of past Texas races] as I’ve done, you’d have two, three, four really good cars racing together all night. You didn’t have a dozen cars pack racing.
“We have to get back to that three, four, five cars that are really good. Good teams, good drivers who are out there mixing it up. You know, being a half a lap ahead isn’t close, isn’t interesting.
“We’ve got to get back to that close, competitive racing. Nobody wants it to be unsafe, but it’s got to be something to see. It’s amazing to see them run 215 mph or 220 mph, but you lose that sensation after a while. You’ve got to see that competition.”
The drivers, understandably, feel differently about the race they’ve put on.
Dixon and Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Tony Kanaan both went with more downforce a year ago, which is why they were able to pull away from the field. That’s a strategic decision that should be rewarded.
But the bigger concern has to be seeing only five cars finish on the lead lap.
IndyCar is aware of this and is doing what it can to ensure a more competitive race. More than two-thirds of its drivers traveled to Texas for a testing session last month, and went through a mock race in the afternoon.
The drivers feel that session provided an early glimpse to what should be a better race Saturday.
“It was really good. I felt the racing there was really good, and you could pass and had more downforce than you normally do,” driver Juan Pablo Montoya said. “I think IndyCar is the closest racing, too. You’re always going to have a shot at being competitive, and it makes it very exciting.”
But pack racing just isn’t an option anymore. Quite simply, the potential consequences for the drivers don’t justify it, nor should they.
As Montoya said: “If you look at NASCAR, it’s OK because you’ve got doors and fenders and stuff, so if you get hit and crash, nothing happens. If we do, we’re going to fly, and it’s not good.
“Pack racing is stupid. You can have a little bit of pack racing at the beginning here and then it’s going to spread out a little bit.”
The hope, though, is that it isn’t too spread out by the time the checkered flag drops. A close and safe race is what is needed to keep IndyCar going forward in Texas, and there’s no better time than now with the 100th Indy 500 fresh in fans’ minds.
“It’s highly important to keep the momentum going because the 100th running was a milestone and huge for the sport,” said Dixon, a four-time IndyCar Series champ. “We definitely added new fans and we’ve got to keep it going.
“Once people see it live or tune in, they love it. What we have right now and the interest — what the 100th running created — we’ve activated new fans and people are talking about it, and we’ve got to keep the ball rolling.”
7:45 p.m. Saturday, NBCSN
Three to watch
1. Carlos Munoz. He’s on the pole for the first time in his IndyCar career, posting the best speed of 217.137 mph on Friday. Munoz has raced twice at Texas, finishing sixth a year ago. Said Munoz: “Honestly, I didn’t expect to be on pole. I didn’t expect to be 217 mph. After practice, I really wasn’t happy with the car. ... We made changes. Really impressed with my speed. It’s a long race. Really nice to have my first pole in my career. Really happy with it.”
2. Helio Castroneves. He’s has the most IndyCar wins in track history with four, and he will start fifth. He had a qualifying speed of 216.740 mph. Said Castroneves: “We’re very happy with the qualifying results and not surprised at all. [My team] is the best and have worked really hard on this car. I like where we are starting, and we hope to bring home a good result.”
3. Alexander Rossi. The Indy 500 champ had his best qualifying session of the season and will start ninth (his first top-10 start in his rookie year). Said Rossi: “The car was so good. It's really a shame to give away good positions because you don't have a radio. We weren't able to communicate with the timing stand to adjust the settings … but I'm looking forward to the race tomorrow and working on moving up through the field.”