By Josh Farmer, Contributing Journalist
Racing is a moving target. You might hit close to the bullseye a few times, but often you find yourself collecting points around the dartboard.
Enter Texas Motor Speedway, which has been one of the hardest marks for the Verizon IndyCar Series to hit since switching to the Dallara DW-12/V6 Turbocharged engine package 2012.
Also, throw in the track’s resurfacing and reconfiguration which saw the banking in Turns 1 and 2 reduced from 24 to 20 degrees and you have a challenge to nail down a package.
We saw a hold-your-breath finish in 2016 where Graham Rahal defeated James Hinchcliffe by 0.008 of a second, to a runaway by Helio Castroneves in 2013 and 2017 was a pack race marathon where only six cars finished.
That was a stark contrast from the pack racing era from 1997-2011, where we saw constant close finishes and racing inches apart.
This year’s race had a wild-card mindset going in because of the universal aero kit, which produces much less downforce than the 2015-17 manufacturer aero package did. Less downforce means less grip, which leads to drivers having to work the car and teams nailing down the mix of aero and mechanical grip and managing tires and fuel.
All of those factors came into play during Saturday’s DXC Technology 600, and they produced one of the better races at the 1.5-mile oval in Fort Worth, Texas.
Scott Dixon claimed a career milestone 43rd career victory with a trademark masterful drive, which moved him into third on the all-time wins list past Michael Andretti. He took the lead on pit stops and managed his tires and fuel better than everyone else. While he led the final 119 laps, that did not mean that the race was void of storylines.
Alexander Rossi damn near stole the show in his battle for second place with Simon Pagenaud, who pulled off a nice recovery from blistering tires to finish second. Ryan Hunter-Reay passed a handful of cars under green to finish 5th while Graham Rahal surged from 20th to 6th.
IndyCar’s leading rookies Robert Wickens and Zach Veach both had impressive runs cut short. Wickens led 31 laps in his TMS debut before crashing with Ed Carpenter while running third. Veach started deep in the field and drove from 20th to third before nicking the wall and losing 10 laps.
Several drivers all rose above the adversity of blistered tires and hot temperatures to deliver good runs. And that, my friends, is what racing is all about.
Sure, an ideal highlight reel of a race would include some ballsy passes for the lead rather than a driver winning the race to Turn 1 and by perfect strategy, leads every lap and claims the win. At the end of the day though, racing differs from other sports in that it has so many elements to it.
It takes teamwork and setting up the car from the crew and tenacity, grit and adapting to the conditions from the drivers.
A lot of those elements got lost from the fan’s lexicon during the pack racing era of the Indy Racing League 1997-2011. The series raced on many 1.5-mile high-banked ovals, all which are household names in the NASCAR world like Atlanta, Charlotte, Kansas and Chicagoland, to name a few.
By producing higher downforce, Indy cars could traverse those ovals at speeds of 215-225 mph without having to lift going into the corner, which in turn produced extremely tight packs of cars. The races were thrilling but produced an unnecessary kind of danger.
Motorsport is meant to be dangerous and everyone has to accept that reality, but there is a fine line between danger and insanity and pack racing flirted with that line all too often. The harsh reality of it came into focus in October of 2011 when Dan Wheldon died following a grisly 15-car wreck at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
The issue is when you are racing inches apart at 215+ mph and someone spins, there is no time to react and multi-car accidents are unavoidable. The element is similar in NASCAR restrictor plate racing at Daytona and Talladega, but those are full-bodied stock cars, not open wheeled cars shaped like rockets.
Nearly as important as safety is the fact that not having to lift into the corner does not bring out the skill factor in racing.
Without getting too far off on a tangent, the IRL pack racing conditioned some fans to believe that is what good racing is. Simon Pagenaud, who finished second in Saturday’s race, summed up the situation as a rough balance of keeping the drivers and the fans happy.
“It’s difficult to race it because I know that the fans expect something different than what the race is like,” said the driver of the No. 22 DXC Technology Chevrolet. “From a driver standpoint, I love it. I think I have to work more on my car to find a way to pass people. I think it’s possible.”
“We passed a lot of cars. It was a different kind of racing than what you’ve seen last year. I felt safe. I felt like I was really driving the car, really taking care of my tires, like I said. I had to think about what I needed. To me, that’s racing. To me, that’s the quality of being a racecar driver.”
“I don’t know about the show because I got to watch the race, but to me it was pretty active. It felt pretty good. I’m not IndyCar, I don’t decide anything. It is what it is. You get what you get.”
Overall, what was witnessed on Saturday night was more of a pure race than we’ve seen in Texas. Sure, this racing product with the universal aero kit (UAK18) will evolve, but the essence of what we saw last weekend, well hopefully it’s here to stay.