Random Thoughts on Texas

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Perhaps in my old age, I’m starting to subconsciously lower my expectations. It’s either that or most fans of the NTT IndyCar Series had unrealistic expectations going into Saturday night’s Genesys 300 at Texas Motor Speedway. As you know, I always go and check social media to see what fans are saying after a race. Some of you have told me to never do that, but I don’t feel like I’m able to properly comment on IndyCar if I don’t see the various opinions out there. Sometimes, the vast majority of opinions coincide with my own. Other times, my opinion is diametrically opposed to what I’m seeing out there. Such was the case after Saturday night’s race.

Terms I saw to describe Saturday night’s IndyCar race at Texas ranged from boring and sleep-inducing to atrocious, abomination, insulting along with some other terms I’d prefer not to use here.

Was it really that bad? What were people expecting?

First of all, I’m not being a cheerleader for the series. This was not an instant classic. They will not show a replay of this week so that everyone that missed it can flock to see what everyone was talking about. Scott Dixon dominated by leading 157 out of 200 laps as he pretty well cruised to the victory.

I was sorry that for the second time over the last decade, a network chose to show this race over-the-air on a Saturday night in prime-time; only to be rewarded with something that did not live up to the hype. But this was not the worst race I’ve ever seen. In fact, it was not the worst race from Texas that I’ve seen. Most of the races held there from 2009 through 2011 were duds, so much so that they had to spice it up in 2011 with a gimmicky split race that saw the grid for the second “race” decided by a lottery of spinning tires.

In more recent years, the racing improved at Texas to the point that the other end of the spectrum started chirping that the track was unsafe and was a disaster waiting to happen. It seems that there is no pleasing a lot of IndyCar fans. That’s why I am so appreciative of the regular readers of this site. Most of you are very rational and can offer up alternative viewpoints, without causing outrage among the other readers. Don’t think for a moment that I am not grateful for that.

Scott Dixon did something on Saturday night that he rarely does – he won the season-opener. Of course the fact that the season didn’t open at St. Petersburg may have had something to do with it. This was the first season since 2008 that the season didn’t open at St. Petersburg. It opened at Homestead that season. Who do you think won the season-opener that year? Scott Dixon. Who won the Indianapolis 500 that year? Scott Dixon. Who ended up winning six races and the championship that season? Scott Dixon. This was the third time that Dixon has won the season-opener. The other two times – 2003 and 2008 – he went on to win the championship. That doesn’t bode well for the other drivers in what is now only a fourteen-race season. That is three fewer races than originally expected for those now playing catch-up.

Josef Newgarden started on the pole, but battled a tire vibration for most of the night. On Lap 32, Dixon made a bold pass going into Turn Three just before the first mandated set of pit stops. Newgarden took the lead on the second round of pit stops on Lap 81 and led for ten laps before surrendering the lead again, as Dixon made another great pass in Turn Two. That was essentially the winning pass as Dixon maintained the lead for the rest of the night.

TV Coverage: This was not NBC’s best effort, and it’s a shame that it was showcased on Big NBC. I’m sure several factors contributed to this. The COVID-19 situation mandated that they be purposely short-staffed, and it showed. Quite honestly, I was surprised to see the booth guys at the track. I had been told just a few weeks ago that they would be situated in a remote studio. But it was obvious that not everyone made the trip – most notably Robin Miller, who would be classified as “at risk”, and Kevin Lee. I think there were fewer manned-cameras than usual and probably fewer people in the production truck.

Even though they were short-staffed, they had the advantage of knowing exactly when the mandated pit stops would be taking place. Yet, more times than not, they chose about three laps before the first stops to cut away to commercials. Fortunately, we still had the side-by-side window to watch the pit stops, but they could have planned better than that.

I also didn’t like that they cut away to their first commercial on Lap 6 – and that was not a side-by-side commercial break. By the time they came back, it was Lap 14. Seriously?

Although they called some iRaces, the booth guys were rusty, but that’s understandable. 258 days between races will cause a lot of cobwebs that an iRace will not clear out. I’ll give them a mulligan on this one. They have a month to prepare for the GMR Grand Prix at Indianapolis over the Fourth of July weekend – also on Big NBC. I’m expecting to see improvement.

On a side note, I know they can’t change the colors of a sponsor – but every time the bright yellow of Liberty Mutual was displayed in the scoring column to the left of the screen, I thought the race was going to a yellow flag. I would normally say that the yellow display was better than subjecting us to the dreaded LiMu Emu commercial, but we got plenty of those too.

The Aero Screen: There were a lot of reasons that Saturday night’s race didn’t live up to certain people’s expectations. Many are blaming the aero screen for being so disruptive to the airflow that it made passing almost impossible. I’m not an aerodynamic engineer, and they may end up being correct – but it is too early to denounce it immediately after one race. Let the experts peer over the data, before condemning it from the comfort of our Saturday night easy chair.

Overall, I’m not a fan of the aero screen (or Arrow Screen, as one fan on social media kept referring to it – I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he was a victim of Auto-correct). I think there are going to be some unintended consequences – some of which have already arisen – and I don’t care for the looks. But if you think it’s going away if we criticize it enough, you’re sadly mistaken.

I do think we will eventually get used to it, maybe much like we eventually get used to a throbbing toothache – but we’ll get used to it. Remember in the early nineties when pit speed-limits were first introduced? It pained us all to see cars seemingly creeping down pit lane. Now when we watch old You Tube videos of races as recently as 1991 and see cars zipping through the pits at 200 mph, we think they must’ve been crazy to allow that. When a new car comes out and the aero screen is incorporated into the original design, it will probably look a lot better than this version. Fifteen years from now, when we look at clips from 2019, we’ll wonder how they ever thought laving a helmet that exposed was ever a good idea. Maybe.

But back to the race…I think there were other culprits that contributed to a perceived lack of action on Saturday night.

The Tires: Firestone was hoping to have a new compound ready for this race. Unfortunately, their manufacturing facility is Akron was shut down for COVID-19 and didn’t re-open until last Monday, June 1. That was hardly enough time to construct and ship tires for race cars for use in Texas by Saturday; so they had to deal with what they had in inventory. One side of each car had tires from last year’s Texas race, while the other side of everyone’s car had tires left over from last year’s Indianapolis 500. This was a far from ideal situation, but it affected everyone equally. If we wanted a race just as things were opening back uip, this was one of the things that we would have to deal with. This mix-match set of tires didn’t put anyone’s safety in jeopardy, but probably didn’t contribute to great racing either.

The PJ1 Traction Compound: To be honest, until I watched the practice I was unaware of anything called PJ1. But it didn’t take long to learn that it caused the track to be slick.

I did a little research on Sunday. It turns out that PJ1 TrackBite is a formulated resin that provides grip, immediately after it is applied to a racing surface. It apparently will add grip to a surface for a few weeks.

The patches of dark pavement in the turns, were what was left over from the last NASCAR race to run at Texas back in November. This is June. More than seven months have passed since NASCAR raced there on Nov 3. Apparently, after PJ1 gets old (after a few weeks), it not only loses the grip it provided – it becomes slicker than the original pavement it was applied to. The Facebook “experts” on Sunday morning all said that track president, Eddie Gossage, should have had the PJ1 scraped off of the racing surface before this weekend. Since I had never heard of PJ1 before Saturday, I can’t say if they are right or wrong. What I can say is that practically every driver said that blackened part of the track where the PJ1 had been applied was treacherous. We all saw what happened to Takuma Sato when he got up in it while warming up for his qualifying run. He damaged his car so bad, he missed the race.

You could visibly see that every driver was making sure they avoided those dark patches in the turns. Consequently, the PJ1 created a one-groove race track from what is normally a very racy venue.

There were several factors that contributed Saturday night’s race to not being the best we’ve seen, but if I had to narrow it down to only one single factor – it would be the patches of PJ1, left over from November’s NASCAR race.

Rookies on Display: Overall, I thought the true rookies in Saturday night’s race acquitted themselves nicely – except for Rinus VeeKay. After completing only a handful of laps in the rookie practice session, he got too low below the white line and the car rotated 180° on him and he smacked the outside wall with the lefty side of his car. The car was not repaired in time for qualifying, but he was allowed to start at the rear of the field.

Whether VeeKay was a victim of the PJ1 in Turn Two or he just drifted too high, he smacked the wall at the exit of Turn Two on Lap 38. The trouble was, he then coasted out of control directly into the path of another fellow-rookie, Alex Palou. As it turns out, Palou was having an excellent drive – especially since he was driving in his very first oval of any kind.

Ed Carpenter, who finished fifth, didn’t mince words regarding his rookie driver after the race. He said (paraphrasing) “Everything I asked Rinus to do this weekend, he didn’t do. Just before the race, the last thing I told him was to not go high in the turns. He went high in the turn, and it bit him. We’re going to have to make sure he understands what he needs to do”.

This was Jack Harvey’s first time at Texas and it showed. He didn’t practice well, and qualified worse. Of the drivers that posted a time, his was by far the slowest. His speed of 205.647 mph, was more than five miles per hour slower than the next slowest time. He did not race well and was something of a rolling chicane at times. Still, he managed to keep it away from the fence and finish sixteenth – miraculously only one lap down.

Oliver Askew had the type of race that exemplifies what little I know about him. I’m not a follower of the Road to Indy, for reasons I won’t get into here. Therefore, I really know very little about Askew. What I have heard is that he is a very measured, reserved and calculating driver with a no-nonsense approach. Some have even called him a young Rick Mears in the making. I don’t know that I’m ready to go that far, but he drove a solid race and made no visible mistakes on his way to an impressive ninth-place finish in his IndyCar debut. I don’t like the way McLaren bullied their way into the series last August, but I don’t hold that against their young drivers. Askew finishing ninth and Pato O’Ward finishing twelfth; was an excellent start for Arrow McLaren SP.

The Price of Impatience: If there was anyone in the field that would like to have about three seconds back, it has to be Felix Rosenqvist. Along with his Chip Ganassi teammate, Scott Dixon, those two were the class of the field late in the race. With ten laps to go, Dixon had a sizeable lead over second-place Rosenqvist – one that Rosenqvist most likely couldn’t make up, unless Dixon had a problem.

But at the beginning of Lap 191, Rosenqvist found himself in a gaggle of three cars heading into Turn One – himself, Marco Andretti and James Hinchcliffe. Marco passed both cars in a brave move. Perhaps that caught Hinchcliffe by surprise, but he slowed down unexpectedly going into Turn One. Rosenqvist got impatient and went to the outside of Hinch, putting himself into the middle of the dreaded patch of PJ1. The slick leftover TrackBite bit him and Rosenqvist ended up in the Turn Two wall, thereby throwing away the points from an almost certain second-place finish and preventing Ganassi from a one-two finish. Instead, Rosenqvist finished twentieth; one spot lower than his new teammate, Marcus Ericsson, who had a less-than-impressive debut for Ganassi.

Give Rosenqvist some credit, though. In his post-race interview, he accepted full blame for the accident. He would have been in his rights to lay some blame on Hinchcliffe, but he put it all on himself. That probably didn’t improve Ganassi’s move, but he earned a few fans with that classy interview.

The Captain was Missed: When Roger Penske announced he was buying the series back in November, the first question from skeptics was how he was going to address the obvious conflict of interest. He said he would be coming off of the pit stand during races and would be giving up a lot of day-to-day control. It showed on Saturday night, as Penske isolated himself in a suite.

The usual Penske-like attention to detail was not on display Saturday night. Yes, Josef Newgarden qualified on the pole, but that was the only real highlight of the weekend. Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud both dealt with vibration issues all night, while Will Power had an un-Penske-like pit stop that set him back. Pagenaud and Newgarden finished second and third, but only after Rosenqvist made a bad decision to throw away his own second-place finish. Power finished a forgettable thirteenth, giving his 2020 season a rough start.

Something tells me that between the series, the Speedway and his own three-car team – his team will be getting the bulk of his attention this week.

Great Night for Foyt…Almost: Both Foyt drivers, Tony Kanaan and Charlie Kimball had good qualifying runs for a team that is coming off of a disastrous season. Kanaan qualified tenth and Kimball twelfth. Kanaan had speed all night and I once saw him running as high as seventh (I think). But the story was Charlie Kimball. He was running with the leaders all night and was running legitimately in fourth place late in the race. But Kanaan was caught speeding on pit lane and was sent to the back of the field on the re-start. He did well to make his way back to tenth.

After running up front most of the night, Kimball began to fade late in the race. Just as it looked like the under-funded team would bring both cars home in one piece, Kimball crashed in Turn Two on the last lap – just as Dixon was taking the checkered flag. Still, both Foyt cars came home tenth and eleventh. Unfortunately, Foyt will be writing a check to Dallara for Kimball’s damaged car – putting a cloud over what was a great start to the season for the small team.

Drama at the Start: Just before the command to start engines, there was sudden drama on the grid for several cars. In a strange coincidence, three contenders all had electronics issues to surface just before the engines were to fire. Two of the cars – Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay – were Andretti teammates. The third was Graham Rahal. The one common denominator is that they are all powered by Honda engines. Is this a Honda issue or is it a vendor providing the ECU? We’ll probably never know the answer, especially if it is a Honda issue – but it will be interesting if this continues throughout the season. All three cars were penalized for making unapproved changes to the cars that had been impounded since qualifying.

The other bit of drama was that we learned after the engines had fired, that repairs on Takuma Sato’s car were not completed in time to pass technical inspection. He was not allowed to start the race.

Drive of the Night: With so many contenders sent to the back at the start and others having their own problems, that opened the door for others to enter the Top-Ten.

Zach Veach opened a lot of eyes (including mine) by reverting to his rookie form, while trying to put his terrible sophomore campaign in the rearview mirror. Veach qualified fifth, but I figured he would slide back soon after the start. He stayed up front all night and even became the only other driver besides Dixon and Newgarden to lead laps. He ended up with a strong fourth place finish, giving people like me reason to believe that maybe it was his second season that was the fluke, and not his first.

His teammate, Ryan Hunter-Reay, was sent to the back of the field after changing an ECU just before the race. Normally he would have been starting in the second row, even after crashing his car in practice. Many claimed that he had the best drive of the night, because he battled back from being penalized at the start to finish eighth. What keeps me from bestowing that title on him is that he had a very fast car to begin with and he is with a great team. Don’t get me wrong, he had a great drive, but I don’t think it was the best of the night.

That honor goes to Conor Daly. He was with a small struggling Carlin team that only brought one car to Texas. He didn’t practice well and only qualified nineteenth. But he worked with the car all night and worked his way up to a sixth-place finish. What speaks volumes about how far Daly has come as a driver is how disappointed he was to finish sixth.

I don’t know that I can ever remember a driver having an arrangement before the start of a season, to split time between two different teams – giving him a complete season between them. He has been through so much adversity over the past few years, I think he is one of the few drivers that could actually succeed within such an arrangement. He’s certainly off to a good start. The next race next month, he will move to his other team – Ed Carpenter Racing – for the GMR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis road course.

All in All: Saturday night’s Genesys 300 at Texas Motor Speedway was not a race for the ages. But I didn’t hate it like many on social media did after the race. Given the circumstances, I thought it came off OK. The NBC ratings were better than expected – the overnight ratings show that 1.285 million people tuned in and it was the highest rated non-Indianapolis 500 since 2016. That’s promising since some of the fan base said they were embarrassed for the series. I actually saw one so-called fan say that if this is the best they could do at Texas, they should just scrap the rest of the 2020 season and focus on how to improve things in 2021. Seriously?

To me, it was a nice start to the season. It was not the typical barn-burner at Texas, but I’m not sure it had to be in this situation. There was not a lot of passing, nor was there a whole lot of strategy. But it did not lack for drama, especially at the start.

But what was the best thing about Saturday night’s race? Everyone walked away from their crashes. With all of the uncertainty going into the race, I wasn’t sure we’d be able to say that today. That means it was a success.

George Phillips

20 Responses to “Random Thoughts on Texas”

  1. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    Sorry George…it was boring! The Nascrap stuff on the track ruined the race.

  2. James T Suel Says:

    It was not the best race I’ve seen. But it was not the worst. How could we expect it to be a great race with the circumstance they were under. They had little practice, quite a few drivers that had never ran a oval, some never in a IndyCar. This crazy compound or what was left of it from the last Nascar show. The teams did not have full crews, and it was the first race with the new Aeroscreen. Who knows how much that 60lb lump setting on top of the cars affected the handling. It’s a shame we get on NBC and cant put on or best. I was around when Indycars used to do mostly one day shows in the late 50s and 60s, it was a lot less technical. Not sure it will work as well with today’s cars. Dixon and his team were exceptionally good.

  3. my impression was that the series, the track and the broadcasters were ill-prepared to stage a race. I guess the covid19 restrictions and lack of time are to blame for that, but I don’t think they gained any new fans after that effort.

  4. Let’s not sugarcoat it. It was boring!!!

  5. To be fair, IndyCar fans haven’t had much to complain about the last several months so they had a lot of pent up energy to release. 😆

    • No Brandon, it was just a lousy race.

      Let’s think about it: if you were a 25 year old newby to our sport who found yourself at home under curfew with no other live sports on TV and decided to watch NBC to check out IndyCar would you be excited today about waiting another four weeks to see what we saw Saturday night? Thank you Eddie Gossage for allowing NASCAR to screw up your track completely for Indy cars by spraying that supposed sticky stuff (PJ1) in the turns. Yeah, that helped a lot. But before we even saw a wheel on the track NBC and IndyCar had blown it (in my opinion) by emasculating the bravest people in the world (next to astronauts) by forcing them to wear hokey masks and making them stand six to ten feet away from everyone while being interviewed with a boom microphone! No offense, but I’m used to race drivers being thought of as heroes, daredevils and basically fearless, but now they’re all afraid of the FLU? And then there was the tone-deaf Leigh Diffie lecturing us on Black Lives Matter nonsense. Look, ENOUGH already!

      What a missed opportunity!

      Nope, I don’t think the aforementioned 25 year old newby will be coming back to see IndyCar anytime soon. No race would’ve been better than the damage our series did with Saturday night’s race. And the folks who run the show needs to find out the real facts about the Chinese Panic, grow a pair, stop kowtowing to the ignorant, biased media and man up and let our heroes be heroes! And quit wearing rose-colored glasses folks, the nonsense needs to stop.

      By the way, we here in Indy are thinking about gathering at IMS on Independence Day and spray painting INDYCAR FANS MATTER on 16th Street! Won’t you join us?

  6. Our Cincinnati NBC affiliate WLWT did not carry the race. Very disappointed.

    • billytheskink Says:

      This was especially unfortunate as Cincinnati is usually one of the top markets for Indycar TV ratings. #4 for the Indy 500 last year and #9 for the season average ratings.

  7. billytheskink Says:

    I thought the race was fine enough given the circumstances, circumstances that damaged everyone’s efforts to put on a good show. I would have liked it to be better, but I am much more disappointed that I was not there in person than I am with the quality of the race.

    COVID-19 preventing both Firestone and Texas Motor Speedway from being fully prepared for the race were probably the biggest factors in its challenges, I thought. The mandated tire stints prevented tire wear from becoming the factor it typically is and TMS not being able to prepare the outside groove for IndyCar as they have in years past has already been noted by many as a huge factor. While it is unfortunate that this was not dealt with, it is understandable as the track only recently was able to get folks back working on-site. The good news is that TMS’ relatively new track surface will start to see more grooves wear in as it ages, negating the need for PJ1.

    I’d expect that the series and NBC were looking for a better rating than they got, one at least equal to the 1.4 million viewers that the (similarly exciting, I’d argue) 2013 Texas race drew on ABC. Nevertheless, ratings were way down across all of the networks on Saturday both week-over-week and year-over-year, likely lost to surging cable news programming. Even so, numbers well over 1 million viewers are a definite positive for the series at this time regardless of network or time slot.

  8. Tony Dinelli Says:

    It was a “ho hum” race but glad that they are back on track now. Any ideas as to why they didn’t go with the F1 style halo? Is it due to the ovals they race on and the potential of debris? Either way it looks atrocious but as you said, it’s not going away.

  9. Though Hunter Reay can sometimes come off as a whiner in my opinion, I think he raised a great point about the double penalty. He and Rossi already got relegated to the back because of their mechanical issues, why throw the drive thru penalty on top of that? Yeah it’s in “the rules” but it essentially means that driver now has zero chance of competing for the win. Why? Because his car didn’t start when everyone else’s did. So what? Just start him at the back and that gives him a fighting chance. Everyone says the race was so boring. Would RHR and Rossi have made it more interesting if their races weren’t ended by unnecessary green flag drive throughs?

  10. Mark Wick Says:

    My brother and I talked about this race a few days before it was run and we were both afraid it was being forced and could be another Las Vegas.
    Fortunately for everyone, were were wrong about the last part, but the race was less than stellar because it was forced. The drivers may have really wanted to race, and I know everyone wanted to provide an actual race for sponsors, but no one was really ready.
    With a few exceptions, the drivers really did an exceptional job all day and during the race. Those of us who really follow the series and have for many years can appreciate that, but will people who just tuned in Saturday night?

  11. Lynn Weinberg Says:

    After I watched the race, I couldn’t decide exactly what I thought. I have out of town company, and there was a Tropical Storm headed my way, so I wasn’t able to give my full attention to the events of the day, and didn’t get to watch qualifications. All in all, I was just happy race season has started. The race was not great, but it wasn’t even in the Top 3 worst races at Texas. The penalties were inconsistent and the viewing experience confusing. I had to go to my reliable sources on Twitter determine some things that the booth announcers should have known.

    I’m thrilled the season has started, so basically, it was a good evening. Living in New Orleans, waiting for a Tropical Storm during a pandemic and other unrest in the country, this gave me a few hours of pure enjoyment and escape and for that, I’m happy.

  12. S0CSeven Says:

    Sorry guys, but Ive been so open-wheel race deprived that I loved every minute of it. The track traction conditions added a new interest factor. I Loved every minute of it and didn’t realize that it was a lousy race until I came here.

  13. Bruce Waine Says:

    While one freely to criticizes the “race” from the comfort of your armchair perhaps with favorite cool beverage in hand, what about those who function to put on the race that is being criticized.

    From Marshall Pruett:

    Let’s say a massive thank you to the men and women who turned the Genesys 300 into the Pit Lane Heroes 300.

    The collision of extreme heat (ninety plus degrees ambient temp) , minimal sleep, and heavy physical exertion made for worrying times.

    One crew member collapsed on the starting grid, and by the end of the race, where the 35-lap tire limit more than doubled the number of pit stops, mechanics from a number of teams were taken to the infield medical center for fluids and care.

    The routine for the majority of the paddock involved getting up around 3:30 a.m., catching the chartered flight from Indy to Texas at 6 a.m., working all day under an unforgiving sun, racing into the night with layers of fireproof suits and facemasks and helmets in place, then packing everything away, jetting to the airport, catching the return flight, and climbing in bed somewhere around 3 a.m.

    It was a punishing 24 hours. If IndyCar plans on holding more one-day events, or rapid-fire doubleheaders as summer temperatures rise, we might need to think first about the hundreds of team members who make the show possible, and factor the physical toll into a more friendly schedule.

  14. Imagine what the numbers could have been had it not been allowed to be preempted by WLWT for a graduation special in the Cincinnati market

  15. Late to the game here, such that nobody is likely to ever read this comment, but I thought the race looked basically like the 2018 Texas race that I attended. Back then, it was possible to go two-wide through turns 3/4, but turns 1/2 were essentially a one groove track, such that a clearly faster Alexander Rossi spent 30-40 laps trying (unsuccessfully) to get around Simon Pagenaud for 2nd place, because he had to fall in line before turn 1. Oh, and for what it’s worth, Scott Dixon won that night, too. So, it’s possible that the PJ1 made a difference to the racing (either by making the track slicker, or by the darker color of the pavement just absorbing more heat, thereby reducing grip over the normal racing line), but I don’t think it made more than a 10% difference (and that difference may also have been partly a result of the race running an hour earlier to fit into an available time block on network TV). And I don’t think the aeroscreen had any deleterious effect on the racing at all.

    Whatever the case, I’m glad IndyCar is racing again, for however long they might be able to now, with COVID-19 cases ramping up in many parts of the country over the last 4-5 days…

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