Random Thoughts On Texas – Part II

After a Saturday night in June in which the Verizon IndyCar Series failed to turn a lap, a Sunday afternoon that saw not a whole lot of action until one of the biggest stars in the series was involved in a frightening crash just before the skies opened up – the Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway finally resumed seventy-six days later. It was well worth the wait.

James Hinchcliffe cycled to the front via pit stop strategy before the red flag came out in June. Saturday night, he proved that his being at the front was no fluke.

Going back to June, pole-sitter Carlos Muñoz led the first thirty-seven laps before pitting. Then Josef Newgarden led the next two laps before he pitted. Two laps later, he was being slammed cockpit-first into the front-stretch wall at Texas – breaking his clavicle and his right hand. Given the severity of the crash, Newgarden was very lucky. Ryan Hunter-Reay led for one lap before he pitted, handing the lead over to James Hinchcliffe – who had yet to pit.

With no clear-cut way to determine who belonged where with how much fuel, IndyCar officials decided the simplest thing to do was to give everyone a full load of fuel to restart Saturday night’s race. Although it may be fairer to some more than others, I agreed that this was the best tact for them to follow.

Quite honestly, I didn’t quite know what to expect Saturday night. Would it be a disjointed continuation of what we saw in June, or would it be a fast and furious mad-dash 171-lap shootout? It was the latter.

It didn’t take long to see that the drivers were seeing this as a golden opportunity to score points or secure a much-needed win in a short amount of time. The sparks were flying early – figuratively and literally. In the literal sense, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen sparks fly out from beneath the cars like they were doing Saturday night. The combination of cold tires and full fuel loads has always contributed to a little bit of visible sparking at night races, but nothing like we saw Saturday night. Perhaps it was the addition of the domed skids that added to the usual amount of sparking, but it was easy to think that a car was crashing when viewing the field from behind.

Dating back to the June portion of this race, James Hinchcliffe led 188 of the 248 total laps for this event. Counting only this past Saturday night, Hinchcliffe was even more dominant – leading 158 of the remaining 171 laps. He withstood challenges from Hunter-Reay, Ed Carpenter, Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan; yet managed to wrestle the lead back from each of them in no time at all.

But it was the last challenge on the final one-third of a lap that was his undoing. Graham Rahal dove underneath Hinch heading into Turn Three and took the lead on the final lap. Hinchcliffe fought back and was within a nose of passing Rahal on the outside. It may not have been that close had Rahal not raised his hand in the air leading into the front-stretch dogleg in a way-too-early celebration (more on that later).

Prior to the dramatic ending, there were three caution-periods. The first came on Lap 213, when Scott Dixon nudged up into Ed Carpenter’s rear bumper-pod. The result was Dixon taking a wild ride before slamming into the Turn One outside wall, before sliding down to the inside of the turn and getting clipped by the passing car of Helio Castroneves. Dixon proceeded to climb out of his car and issue his own version of the “double-bird” to Carpenter as he came back by. I’m sure once Dixon saw the replay, he might think differently on who may have actually deserved that salute.

But Carpenter also suffered damage from the contact. Five laps after the restart, Carpenter’s tire went down causing him to spin, collecting Helio Castroneves and Max Chilton in the process. Then with sixteen laps to go, Jack Hawksworth was again at the wrong place at the wrong time when he got caught up by a spinning Mikhail Aleshin coming out of Turn Four. Except for a sore knee for Jack Hawksworth, no drivers were injured in any of the three incidents on Saturday night. Of course, Newgarden is still smarting from his Texas crash in June. He and Conor Daly were in street clothes for the evening, not allowed to race after their June mishap.

The final laps were about as exciting as you will find in any form of racing, with a photo finish at the end to cap it off. This race was reminiscent of the old races at Texas, where it was edge-of-your-seat excitement and you were worn out from watching it. But in the end, you exhaled when it was over and you realized the great driving you had just witnessed. It also reminded me of why I have followed this sport for more than half a century.

TV Coverage: I am assuming that Leigh Diffey was originally scheduled to be in the booth for this race. However, he was reportedly stricken with a bout of diverticulitis and was unable to be there. I have dealt with this disease since 2005 and I feel his pain. When dealing with a flare-up, you are unable to do anything other than curl up in a ball in bed and wait for the days to pass before the pain subsides. Although I haven’t had flare-up in about four years, I remember them well. They aren’t fun. Get well soon, Leigh!

In his place was Kevin Lee, known for his pit-reporting on NBCSN, his Indy Lights broadcasts and his co-hosting duties on Trackside. I thought Kevin did an outstanding job as a fill-in and I could make a case for him getting the full-time gig for IndyCar races. Diffey brings excitement when he is there (even though I find his screaming to grow a little tiresome at times); but the problem is – he’s not always there.

This was an odd year because Diffey has been involved with the Olympics. But there are many races each season when Diffey is doing Formula One or on assignment elsewhere with NBC. I think NBCSN does an outstanding job covering the Verizon IndyCar Series, but I think some continuity in the booth could help enhance their coverage even more. If what we heard Saturday night from Kevin Lee was indicative of what he can do as a one-time substitute; imagine how effective he would be once he develops chemistry with the others in the booth.

The idle Conor Daly was tabbed to be Kevin’s replacement in the pits. Although I don’t think Daly reported one actual pit stop, he did a good job with his delivery and his insight when he offered up his opinion. Once his driving career is behind him, I think Daly has a future behind the microphone – just like his father, former driver and ESPN analyst Derek Daly.

A wise move: Points leader Simon Pagenaud was mixing it up with the leaders late in the race. In the final laps, he was going four-wide into Turn Three with three drivers who had not won a race in quite while and were hungry for that waning taste of victory one more time.

Fortunately for Pagenaud and the other three drivers, Pagenaud backed out of the throttle at the last minute before something crazy happened. That’s the sign of a veteran. It’s one thing to get too conservative while leading in the points. It’s another thing to do something stupid. Had he crashed, Pagenaud would have justifiably been labeled for doing something stupid. In the process, he would have probably handed over the points lead to his rival Will Power, who entered the night trailing Pagenaud by only twenty points.

By doing the wise thing, Pagenaud finished fourth while Power finished eighth – thereby increasing his lead over Power to twenty-eight points with two races to go. Pagenaud may not have gotten the glory for winning, but he increased his lead over Power and brought his car home in one piece.

The Legions of the Miserable: I realize many think I’m foolish for even glancing at social media, but I think it’s important for me to know what other fans are saying and thinking – especially after a race.

As you can imagine, social media was abuzz after Saturday night’s race at Texas. Most were still giddy about what they had just seen and were calling it an instant classic. They also repeated what a few of the drivers had said on television in post-race interviews essentially saying that if you didn’t like this race, then you don’t like racing.

However, I should not have been surprised that some of the usual suspects I follow were complaining about the race on Saturday night and into Sunday morning. They were labeling this as the return of pack racing and calling it fabricated and not real racing. Some saw this as another opportunity to get on their usual soapbox and rehash their tired campaign for canopies on cockpits. Of course, I’d prefer they use this opportunity rather than their usual tactics of riding the backs of a fatality to advance their own agenda – but I digress.

Some claimed that this type of racing was unnecessarily dangerous and it put divers and fans in peril and that IndyCar will eventually put a car into the grandstands if they keep running races like that.

First of all, this was not pack racing by any stretch of the imagination. Some of the loudest critics on Sunday morning even admitted they had not seen the race, but had only seen a video of the last ten laps. If anyone actually watched the race, they know that it didn’t take long for the field to spread out and run single-file after the beginning of each stint. That’s not pack racing. Pack racing has the entire field bunched together side-by-side from beginning to end.

They are basing their flawed logic on watching the race from the last restart, which came with only nine laps to go. Of course, they will be bunched up after a restart. Even the notoriously single-file Mid-Ohio has cars bunched after restarts.

I did not see anything that was unnecessarily dangerous Saturday night. Was there danger? Yes, it was a motor race – which is inherently dangerous by nature. There is no way to make this sport 100% safe where everyone is guaranteed to walk away unscathed. If there were, it would probably be an unwatchable product. Like it or not, it is the existing danger that captivates us. It’s not because we want to see drivers killed or injured. Instead, we fans marvel that these men and women perform at the highest level in the face of the existing danger. If it were easy, anyone could do it and there would be nothing to marvel at.

Did you hear the drivers after the race? They loved it. None of them spoke of any peril they were in. Yet these self-proclaimed experts think they are wiser than most other fans and all drivers. They appear to see it as their duty to save the drivers from themselves and put an end to what they consider unsafe racing.

I sometimes wonder why some of these so-called racing fans even tune in to watch IndyCar races. I’m not an NBA fan, but I simply choose not to watch NBA games. I don’t watch the games just to get on social media afterwards to tell NBA fans how stupid they are to enjoy it. I think the only joy these people get out of life must be in criticizing and throwing rocks at something that others truly enjoy. We all know people like that. They have no joy in their own miserable lives, so they see it as their God-given right to point out to others how wrong they are to get joy out of anything. It must be a sorry existence being them.

Early celebration: Graham Rahal appeared to almost cost himself the win on Saturday night, when he raised his arm in celebration entering the front-stretch dogleg way before crossing the finish line. Whether the additional drag of his arm slowed him down or not, he should have been more focused on James Hinchcliffe who was quickly charging on his right side. Like Rahal or not, it would have been worth a chuckle had the early celebration actually cost him the win. Had he been celebrating while Hinchcliffe charged up and crossed the line ahead of him, well – I don’t need to tell you what a punch-line Rahal would have become.

I was reminded of Philadelphia Eagles wide-receiver DeSean Jackson, who purposely and inexplicably dropped the ball on the one-yard line in a senseless hot-dogging early celebration against the Dallas Cowboys in 2008. The worst thing about Jackson’s early celebration was that he did it earlier as a high school recruit in the US Army-sponsored All-American bowl in 2005. This video shows both boneheaded moves by a complete bonehead.

Am I calling Rahal a bonehead? Not at all. He made a gutsy move that paid off for the win. I know that emotions get the best of all of us sometimes, but it would’ve taken someone with a pretty thick skin to withstand the ribbing that Rahal would have gotten had this celebration cost him the win that he had fought so hard for. Surely next time, Rahal will think twice before going for the early celebration. Fortunately, I think Rahal is much more mature than DeSean Jackson.

Seriously? Another “gem” I found on social media Saturday night was some troll urging Tony Kanaan to retire. Seriously? As he has done year in and year out, Tony Kanaan proved on Saturday night that he has not slowed down one bit by running up front at the end, fighting for the win and finishing third – despite the fact that he will be forty-two years old on New Year’s Eve.

There is an old saying in racing that says: “There are bold drivers and there are old drivers. But there are no old, bold drivers.” Tony Kanaan defies that old saying.

Tony Kanaan is a clean and savvy driver that uses his experience to know when and when not to be bold. How many times do people get out of a crashed car and say ”…Tony Kanaan took me out. That’s typical.” The answer to that question would be seldom, if ever.

Critics say that he is squandering his great Ganassi ride that should go to someone more deserving. Really? How great is this Ganassi ride? His teammate, Scott Dixon, has won one race this season – Phoenix, back in the early stages of the season. Other than that, it’s been a miserable year for Dixon who now sits sixth in the points. Where does Tony Kanaan sit? Third – and still within striking distance of the championship (admittedly with a lot of luck involved). One could argue that it may be the backsliding Chip Ganassi Racing that is holding back Kanaan instead of the other way around. For whatever reason, they’ve been chasing the setup at more tracks than not this season.

But to suggest Tony Kanaan should retire is ludicrous. If he were a perennial backmarker, I would agree. But instead, he races at the front with his Ganassi teammates usually languishing behind him. Is he in 2004 form when he won the championship? No, but I would also point out that he had one of the few Honda engines in the field that year. I think he is driving as good or better right now that in any point in his career. He is thriving despite the un-Ganassi like season his team is having. Throw in the fact that he is also a fan favorite and a great ambassador for IndyCar and you blow away any so-called logic for Kanaan to retire.

Not only do I think Tony Kanaan will be back in the series next season, I think he will be back in the No.10 car for Ganassi. That’s where he belongs.

All in all: Despite the moaning from the vocal minority, I loved the race Saturday night. There was no pack racing, just hard-fought racing that produced a thrilling ending. There is nothing better than watching an IndyCar race on television under the lights. OK, there is one thing – being at an IndyCar race under the lights. The cars just shimmer and look even faster than they already are.

Kudos to the track president Eddie Gossage and IndyCar’s Jay Frye for making the most out of a bad situation in June. When they announced that the race would be postponed for two and a half months, I didn’t know what to expect. But they made a silver lining out of June’s dark cloud on Saturday night. I’m not sure they could have had a better outcome of events than what they got Saturday night. Now, let’s see if they can build on that momentum for next year at Texas.

George Phillips

10 Responses to “Random Thoughts On Texas – Part II”

  1. The Tony Kanaan troll wasn’t as bad as the “Liz Power is a fat cow” troll on the indycar board last Monday! Here I am at work sneaking and listening to the race only to see this over and over on the message board that you can’t hide, I only wish I could have been at home trolling and WATCHING the race, not listening to it!

    The racing Saturday was amazing, I love when there are only a few cars on the lead lap, the survivors getting to battle it out, Helio with damage even up there. I love those throwbacks to the old Michigan 500 days when your reward for surviving the event was a shot at a win like that! It’s scary though, it really is, I honestly didn’t sleep well that night, my adrenaline was up and I was scared watching it. That said, it’s dangerous no matter what. Justin Wilson died in a crash and didn’t even hit the wall until he was unconsious, proving that racing is dangerous no matter what!

    I like NASCAR also, they had a big weekend with first-time winners. But I just don’t get how people could want to watch slow stock cars fun single file at Texas rather than what we saw out there Saturday!

    Gutted for Hinch also, that was his race for sure. I love/hate when events come down to that, where you are pulling for 3-4 drivers and know that someone is not going to win. If that is Dixon, Power and Pag running for the win, it’s exciting but they all have plenty of wins so I don’t care who takes it but Rahal, Hinch and Kanaan all had reasons for me to root for them…

  2. I’m also REALLY gutted by Hinch’s loss. It seemed to take the edge off a truly brilliant race.

    Speaking of boneheaded moves, a few years ago in the Monaco GP2 race, the leading driver slowed dramatically approaching the finish line on the last lap to wave to his team……. and of course was passed for the win. I can’t remember who it was or find the link.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    In the many, many races I’ve attended over the years, this is the first time the driver I was rooting for above all others has won. Seriously, this was the first time ever. I never attended a win by Al Unser Jr., Jeremy Mayfield, Bobby Rahal, Max Papis, AJ Allmendinger, or (until Saturday night) Graham Rahal.
    Was this the best race I have ever attended? If it wasn’t, it was darn close. Seeing Rahal in the winner’s circle definitely gives it an edge on top of how thrilling it was. It was worth every day of that delay and then some.

    The series and Texas Motor Speedway should be commended for how well they handled the restarted event. They offered discounted general admission to the whole grandstand, $1 Cokes and hot dogs, free t-shirts and programs for the fans who showed up early for the practice sessions, and free tickets to all police, firefighters, and first responders. The only quibble I would have is that the particulars of the autograph session were not well communicated.

    On boneheaded moves, I can recall a couple of racing examples:

    – Back in 2000, at the AMA Supercross race at the Astrodome, Grant Langston was cruising toward victory in the 125cc class main event. It was setting up to be KTM’s first victory on the Supercross circuit. After launching into the last triple jump on the final lap, just a few turns from the checkered flag and right in front of where I was sitting, Langston pumped his fist in celebration… and then crashed as he attempted to land. A young Suzuki rider named Travis Pastrana would take his first victory instead.

    – The 2008 Mid-Ohio Indy Lights race ended under caution, with Jonny Reid leading. Heading to the checkered flag, Reid drove into the pits, slowing down to the pit speed limit, and handed the victory to James Davison. Mark Martin actually did something similar at a NASCAR Cup race at Bristol in 1994.

    • LurkingKiwi Says:

      Apparently Jonny Reid’s radio had failed, and he hadn’t been briefed on how to do a safety-car finish when leading, so when the safety-car peeled off into the pits he followed it in.

  4. hey George. those who didn’t enjoy that race Saturday nite just don’t like close racing. id hate to see them at a Saturday nite short track!lol! I call them the will power bunch.

    glad for rahal to get a win carptner to have a decent run. felt for hinch a great run with no win.

    overall I thought and excellent race which they need more of.

  5. HOLY PHOTO FINISH BATMAN! Fan-freakin’-tastic!! I watched the race on the radio and the announcers were screaming for the last few laps.

    I think you wasted 15 paragraphs on the Danny Downers, but it is your space.

    I enthusiastically second what the Skinkster wrote about commending the Speedway and the series for their promotion efforts. That and a great show is how you get return fans.

    Regarding Ed Carpenter’s luck or lack therof: If Ed was an undertaker folks would give up dyin’.

  6. I could not agree more on all counts, George. If anyone would question Kevin Lee’s ability to be in the broadcast booth they now have the evidence from a thrilling race. Also, the proof is there whenever you watch an Indy Lights race. Kevin will make an excellent addition.

    As for the race, I couldn’t ask for more. Graham Rahal kept himself running up front and won it. It’s not “how many laps you’ve led, it’s winning! Way to Graham.

  7. Mark Wick Says:

    As I was “watching” the race on radio, timing and scoring and twitter, I was a bit surprised I didn’t catch any comments about Ed Carpenter battling for the lead and the significance for both Ed and Josef if Ed won.
    Ed would get the win he really wants and would essentially putting those championship points, and more, in the pocket of Joseph.
    None of the title contenders would get the 50 points for winning and all of them would finish one place behind where the would with Ed not there, which would further reduce the points available.
    Ed winning could have been very big to Josef’s title chanches.
    I am looking forward to watching the race replay to see all the racing I only heard about.

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