FORT WORTH, Texas — With two oval tracks originally planned for the 2020 season disappearing from the 2021 schedule, Roger Penske is thankful the series could run twice last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. Don’t count the series owner among the loud pool of fans who lamented a lack […]
FORT WORTH, Texas — With two oval tracks originally planned for the 2020 season disappearing from the 2021 schedule, Roger Penske is thankful the series could run twice last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. Don’t count the series owner among the loud pool of fans who lamented a lack of passing and drivers who told IndyStar that the track’s second lane was “even worse” than a year ago.
After 25 consecutive years hosting American open-wheel races as one of IndyCar’s most loyal venues – and the only oval track, outside IMS, with more than a five-year history presently – Texas Motor Speedway isn’t going anywhere on IndyCar’s calendar, beyond a possible date shift to its traditional spot in 2022.
“You don’t realize how important it is for us to run here,” Penske told IndyStar in an exclusive interview Sunday at TMS. “It’ll make the Indy 500 that much better because, if we don’t have fast racing on ovals prior to (the Indy 500), you just don’t have the ability to practice your car at that kind of speed.”
TMS president and promoter Eddie Gossage did IndyCar a favor in back-to-back years, helping the series push through a rough patch in its ability attract new oval race promoters. In 2020, it was TMS, with some financial assistance from Penske and IndyCar, that got the season back rolling amid the COVID-19 pandemic. On June 6 of last year, TMS hosted IndyCar’s single-day show of practice, qualifying and a race, all without the ability to host a single fan, as the paddock traveled, competed and left in less than 24 hours.
And during the pandemic, when Richmond Speedway promoters opted out of hosting the track’s planned return to the IndyCar schedule in 2020 or a 2021 reboot, and the series had to rent Iowa Speedway to host a summer doubleheader that signaled the end of the short track’s open wheel run (for now), TMS that agreed to shift from its traditional June date to early May and add an additional race to the weekend.
Though possibly just a temporary bandage to the series’ not-so-small issue of maintaining its oval track heritage, Penske pushed back against any idea that Texas’ imperfect track conditions were cause to consider severing the relationship. Without unveiling specifics, Penske told IndyStar that the series again helped carry the financial blow of an expensive weekend that attracted even fewer spectators than the track’s normal, somewhat thin crowd.
PJ1 helps NASCAR, creates IndyCar mess
Two years into IndyCar struggling to find track conditions that produce the type of racing that made TMS the race with the most “edge-of-your-seats” moments on the schedule, several members of the paddock have urged patience.
Of note, IndyCar didn't set aside even a small window during Saturday’s practice to mandate teams run -- at any speed -- in the higher lines to try and lay down Firestone rubber that likely would have roughened up the slippery surface that largely kept IndyCar running a single-lane processional through both corners of the track.
It was a suggestion that Team Penske driver Will Power presented to the media last month, but one that other drivers were publicly wary of, given the section’s history of causing crashes.
More on IndyCar issues at Texas:
In 2019, TMS had the traction compound PJ1 applied ahead of NASCAR’s fall playoff race. It’s a regular feature at some stock car tracks and one that helps those cars run the entire width of the corners. In order for it to be applied, the NASCAR sanctioning body, drivers’ council and lead track engineer all have to come to an agreement, Gossage told IndyStar.
Contrary to many fans’ belief, its application isn’t much in the hands of the promoter. And after TMS’s redesign and repave a couple years back, that trio felt it was necessary to improve the events, which do bring in considerably more revenue than any other event. Its affect on IndyCar’s racing capabilities likely weren’t top of mind at the time, particularly because its affects on much lighter cars running at much higher speeds wasn’t well-researched.
Which is why it all-but forced Indy cars into a single lane for the 2020 and penalized those that went too high (a qualifying crash from Takuma Sato and late-race accident from Felix Rosenqvist).
In preparation for this past weekend’s doubleheader, the series and TMS officials wracked their brains to come up with solutions. The Firestone tire compound for both races was slightly altered from a year ago, and TMS tried scrubbing the solution out of the microscopic cervices in the asphalt and driving machines dragging tires over the top to simulate practice and race-like tire degradation that would reasonably provide more traction.
But Saturday, Josef Newgarden crashed into Sebastien Bourdais after he slammed on the brakes behind a slowing Colton Herta, with both saying they feared running high on the track. Felix Rosenqvist’s outside pass on James Hinchcliffe forced the Andretti car to drift high and lose all control. Multiple drivers told IndyStar they felt the track conditions were worse than 2020.
“It’s just slippery. We can’t really touch it,” said Graham Rahal postrace on Sunday. “It just doesn’t work for us.
“It’s so dark, and it stains the surface so terrible. When you walk on it, you can feel it. It’s like ice. Roughly from Firestone’s numbers, there’s 20-25% less grip the minute you touch the dark stuff.”
Following Sunday’s race, though, Newgarden, in particular, had changed course from his Saturday postrace comments about the track being in worse condition than a year ago. Additionally, he and Rahal vocalized support of the track that faced steep criticism on social media over the weekend.
'We're trying to do our best'
Though stopping far short of endorsing a future IndyCar doubleheader at TMS – “I like a single-day show here. I like one race,” Rahal said – the 2nd- and 3rd-place finishers from Sunday see promise for IndyCar at Texas. And subjectively, the second race of the weekend did provide a better show as the afternoon wore on, with a fair amount more passes on the straights and even around the outside in both corners of the tri-oval.
“I thought it was decent. I think there were some opportunities,” said Rahal, who made up eight spots from start to finish Saturday and six Sunday. “I don’t think we should beat everybody up on this thing. People poured a lot of time into getting this race better. I thought it was better than last year, personally. Way more guys finished on the lead lap, and there was way more passing.
“I thought it was an improvement in the overall package. Is there more to come? Sure. But the track is what it is. We’re trying to do our best and work around it.”
In particular, Rahal pointed to the new aero pieces the series has tested on the IMS oval multiple times ahead of their use for this year’s Indy 500, and during the late-March Texas test. They weren’t approved for this weekend, though.
Rahal also said he noticed incrementally better grip as the second race dragged on, as more and more cars did run the higher line in the turns. Whether that was on purpose or just out of circumstance in drivers trying to force their ways up the grid with the few chances they had, it seemed to start to work.
The latest IndyCar news:
“It did get better as guys, accidentally, ran half a groove too high,” Rahal continued. “But still, it would take a lot of running, I think, to get that to really peel up.
“If over time, they don’t reapply that PJ1 and let it slowly wear off, I think this place can be a two-plus lane track again. But it’s going to take a while to get there and take people that are brave enough to try it – or try it by accident.
“But it doesn’t matter. (We’ve got to) try to apply some rubber. It’s tricky. It’s not ideal, not ideal for us.”
Email IndyStar motor sports reporter Nathan Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @By_NathanBrown.