IndyCar drivers praise better racing at Texas after changes but does the event have a future?


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Sunday’s IndyCar Series race at Texas Motor Speedway saw a thrilling photo finish between winner Josef Newgarden and his Penske team mate Scott McLaughlin.

Ganassi driver Marcus Ericsson finishing behind them in third. All three drivers praised the quality of the race at the Texan track at a time when its future on the calendar is not certain.

Multiple factors contributed to the improvement in racing. To mitigate the effect of turbulent air, IndyCar allowed teams to run optional barge boards like the ones offered for last year’s Indianapolis 500, which added downforce as needed, and contributed to a much livelier race than the previous year’s 500.

But Texas’ biggest pain point for IndyCar was the lingering impact of applying PJ1 traction compound to the corners in 2019. It was a change made to benefit NASCAR racing, but had a detrimental effect upon IndyCar. It rendered most of the outside grooves useless due to the total lack of grip, and turning recent races into single-file processions where the only overtaking happens during pit cycles, or on restarts. The PJ1 traction compound has recently been replaced with a resin alternative which promised to reduce the negative effects IndyCar experienced.

Penske driver Will Power urged IndyCar to schedule additional practice sessions to place more rubber on the outside groove in order to develop a second line through the corners. IndyCar duly scheduled a voluntary 30-minute practice session on Saturday afternoon after qualifying in addition to the regularly scheduled practice time on Friday and Saturday.

Drivers had more success passing in Texas this year
All of these factors made this year’s race at Texas a much better show for the fans and drivers. There were 372 passes for position and 15 lead changes in Sunday’s race. The most significant of these passes was Newgarden’s final lap move around the outside of McLaughlin through turn four, to take the race win by 0.069 seconds.

In contrast, the 2021 double-header at Texas produced just 240 passes for position and 15 lead changes across 675 miles of racing. This year’s race was also held in the daytime, after years of running from the late afternoon until after sunset.

When asked if the change in time slot played a factor in the quality of racing, Newgarden demurred: “It wasn’t the daytime running, it’s the changes to the aerodynamic package. We were running quite a bit more downforce than last year.”

“I think the [extra] session they ran cleaned up a little bit of the second lane. It really did. I wouldn’t have been able to do what I did in three and four last year. There’s just no way. I would have hit the fence for sure.”

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McLaughlin, who led 186 of the 248 laps, said: “I had a lot of fun out there regardless [of the result]. It’s what I remember watching when I was a kid.”

There were several heavy crashes at one of IndyCar’s fastest ovals
“I certainly hope we continue to build with this package and get this better. Once you have a bit of two lanes through this track, it’s going to be a lot of fun and we’ll have races like we did today.”

“Sometimes when we go racing it’s very hard to overtake on the ovals,” said Ericsson, who started 14th and worked his way onto the podium. “Then you get very static racing, and you get frustrated because you cannot really make moves. That was not the case today

“I think whatever IndyCar has done, they’ve done a great job. We need to understand what we did right this weekend to get the racing this much better, because it was a lot more fun when you knew you could get around people – not easy, but you could get around people. That was making a huge difference for the enjoyment behind the wheel, I would say.”

Ericsson wasn’t the only driver who was able to make moves through the field: Jimmie Johnson went from 18th to a career-best sixth-place finish, and last-minute substitute Santino Ferrucci rose from 27th to ninth.

There were still lulls in the action. Drivers spent the first half of the race running single-file and focusing on meeting their fuel mileage numbers, which ultimately made for interesting tactical battles. A string of accidents occured involving drivers being pushed into the dirty outside groove and striking the wall, which thankfully didn’t deter others from attempting to run on the outside later in the race. The second half of the race was much livelier, however, with seven on-track lead changes.

So, purely from the perspective of quality of racing, IndyCar’s annual trip to Texas – a staple of the calendar since the facility opened in 1997 – was a success.

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But was it enough to secure the long-term future of this partnership of series and venue? The current contract between IndyCar and Texas Motor Speedway ended at the conclusion of this race.

Start, IndyCar, Pocono, 2019
Pocono is one of many ovals IndyCar has left
Unfortunately, despite producing a better race this year than in prior years, grandstands for race day looked sparsely populated. This was, at one point, one of the few venues on the Indy Racing League side of the American open-wheel racing split – apart from Indianapolis – which could reliably boast six figures’ worth of attendance and a healthy crowd in the main grandstands.

The last IndyCar race at California Speedway (Fontana) in 2015 was one of the more entertaining – albeit dangerously nerve-wracking – IndyCar oval races in recent memory, but woeful attendance ensured that it wouldn’t return for 2016 and beyond. Attendance woes later led to the Phoenix and Pocono ovals being cut from the calendar, regardless of quality of racing, safety concerns, or both.

Texas Motor Speedway’s continued presence on the calendar could not have been justified if the trend of processional races and barren crowds continued. At least for this year, the first problem has been alleviated, and there’s a genuine blueprint for great racing in the future.

But in terms of the second issue, it could already be too little, too late.

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Author information

RJ O'Connell
Motorsport has been a lifelong interest for RJ, both virtual and ‘in the carbon’, since childhood. RJ picked up motorsports writing as a hobby...

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12 comments on “IndyCar drivers praise better racing at Texas after changes but does the event have a future?”

  1. The Indycar race was superb but it did make me think about ‘marbles’, I wonder if it’s possible to develop a race tyre that doesn’t shed its outer layers across a track. I notice in F1 that single race lines form due to this too, surely it’s got to be better for the environment having a tyre that stays in one piece.

    1. I am not sure it is even possible to do that. The tyre would have to be so smooth and hard compound that you wouldn’t have any grip on it @emu55.

  2. I know almost nothing about Indy but saw the highlights and was impressed. Very visceral compared to F1. That crowd though seemed sparse, is that a normal turnout, a holdover from last year, covid related?

    1. It’s definitely covid related. In 2018 a similar view looked like this:
      Mind that not all the stands were open so this doesn’t show the real turnout, but at the start-finish straight the crowd was pretty dense. Still, it will be full house at Indianapolis 500, which is always sth to behold ;)

      1. The TLDR – Definitely not Covid related.

        You simply can’t compare this race to any recent one due to the date change. And Covid isn’t a factor for the crowd – as a US resident, I know that people in States that lean Republican (and especially Texas) have tended to ignore Covid rules even at its worst last year. Even in liberal States, right now Covid is basically irrelevant to daily life and apart from a handful of people wearing masks inside, it feels like most people are treating the pandemic as over even when it obviously isn’t.

        Back to my argument on your point:
        The race in Texas has traditionally been held after the Indy 500, in early June between the 5th and 12th going all the way back to 1997 when the track opened. There have been multiple changes to race distance and the double header in 2011 (2 races on the same day at half distance and half points each) but between 1997 and 2020, Indycar/IRL has held a race in Texas on that weekend in June. Even with Covid delaying the 2020 season it was still held on it’s traditional date, though being race 1 of the season thanks to early season race cancellations. (I’m not counting 2016 which started on it’s scheduled date but was postponed on lap 71 due to rain, with the race resuming 10+ weeks later in late August).

        Last year 2 races were held on 1st & 2nd of May. This year March 20th. 3 different dates in as many years aren’t great for building ticket sales when the event keeps moving around the schedule. One other point – all of those previous races were held on a Saturday, apart from the 2nd race last year (which started at 4pm local time). And the majority of recent races have been Saturday evening races that start before sunset and end under the lights.

        So it’s the first time Texas has been held in March, and only the 2nd Sunday race since the track opened in 1997. It also started at 11:30am (vs 4pm last year). It’s therefore unreasonable to compare attendance from this race against any previous one.

        To be clear – as a US resident, I’ve found that Americans plan specific events on set weekends and changes to that flow, especially with sporting events, usually mean that people drop those plans and do something else as work leave is so limited. I’ve read elsewhere that traffic was terrible, until the journalist going to the track passed the local church and it became extremely quiet once clear. Scheduling a race, in the US Bible Belt, with a start time being before most churches would finish the Sunday morning service, isn’t a great idea. And with the date change, people may have plans for last Sunday that they always do on that weekend in March that aren’t negotiable, so would put those first over a different race date for their local Indycar race.

        Distance from Indianapolis also seems to matter in terms of crowds at Indycar races and especially for ovals. Last year I met a significant number of people who had come down to Gateway from Indianapolis for the race (it’s around a 4 hour drive to/from St Louis) which I think explains the crowd being pretty decent (the main grandstand was 70%+ full, the small one we were in at turns 1-2 was pretty empty though).

        Basically Indycar’s core US fanbase is in the US Midwest – obviously centred on Indianapolis but it’s significant that a large portion of the calendar is a 4 hour drive from there (Nashville, Ohio, Elkhart Lake, Detroit, St Louis). Make that 7 hours and you can add 3 more tracks at Iowa, Toronto and Birmingham. Of the 2022 schedule, only Texas, St Petersburg, Portland and the 2 races in California aren’t drivable from the Midwest – and Texas is the only oval of those.

        I think the cooler temps of March make sense – it’s the reason Fontana was dropped, as they wanted a date in October when it is cooler. I went to the 2014 race at Fontana and despite starting on a Saturday night, it was late August and the outdoor temp was over 37C at 5pm. People simply won’t turn up in that heat to sit on metal bleachers (when most are exposed). That’s part of the reason that NASCAR goes to Fontana in February. Indycar holding its final race at Fontana in June 2015 at midday was commercial suicide.

        I hope it sticks around as Indycar really needs ovals that work, and that was one of the best Texas races for a long time – Gateway across the river from me in St Louis does pretty well and has done since it rejoined 5 years ago. It didn’t do well before thanks to the split and being scheduled on the same weekend as the Indy 500 when it was a CART race. But it has a good promoter, plenty of local TV advertising (there’s an ad for race tickets for the Gateway race against every Indycar race) and is very close to downtown St Louis – the track might be in Illinois but it’s less than 20 mins away, and parking/getting away aren’t too bad either. It’s something that lots of recent ovals have lacked (e.g. Phoenix).

        I think this date in March is better (air temp for fans will certainly be better, as apparently is the racing) and it should resolve the issue Fontana had of extreme temperatures for spectators. It either needs to go back to the sunset start time on a Saturday, or start just a few hours later on a Sunday and crowds may well be bigger. If they can keep the quality of racing there, it really should get a contract renewal.

        1. RandomMallard
          23rd March 2022, 23:31

          Wow that is an amazing comment! Thank so much skydiverian!

  3. Indycar’s next “car” needs to be faster than F1 on both ovals and normal race tracks. Stop being F1’s poor brother where washed up F1 drivers hang out. Also less oval races might help their cause to reach global markets and take some races overseas like the late 90’s CART era.

    1. Just love it when people who don’t even watch Indycar try to comment like they know what they are talking about.

      1. Fabrício B. Aguirre
        25th March 2022, 16:56

        I tought the same as you, pastaman…

  4. Whether they were pushed or shoved out of the Circuit Of The Americas is debatable, they couldn’t come back there if they wanted because NASCAR has their spring date now. I was one of 68000 that showed up there for the Indycars back in 2019. I don’t think there’s any room on COTA’s schedule now to accommodate their return. Or they could go back to Houston to race around the Astrodome’s parking lot.

  5. Getting tickets to the race was a joke, the ticket site showed nearly every seat was full. I live a close drive to the track and decided to watch on TV instead of being stuck in a middle seat surround by people. I figured with the covid #’s being low they must have nearly sold out, last year’s crowd looked a lot like this year.

  6. The race was terrific! The changes IndyCar made helped tremendously, but little too late. What a shame they have ruined the racing with the NASCAR compound, which is the reason the crowds have dwindled. The racing would be unbelievable if they could use the whole track.

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