Random Thoughts on Texas

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If yesterday’s XPEL 375 at Texas Motor Speedway (TMS) was indeed IndyCar’s last race there for the foreseeable future, let it be known that the NTT IndyCar Series went out with a bang at Texas. Many have criticized Texas in the past for encouraging dangerous pack racing. Others have complained that recent races at Texas have been single-file processions that have no passing. Yesterday hit the sweet spot for everyone. If you didn’t like Sunday’s race, you might want to stop following motorsports.

Sunday’s race had something for everyone. If you liked a lot of passing, yesterday’s race made you happy. If you despise pack racing, you would’ve been pleased with what you saw on Sunday, because it did not even resemble pack racing. You want late-race drama? You got it when Josef Newgarden made the race-winning pass on teammate Scott McLaughlin at the line on the last lap, after getting a run coming off of Turn Four. You like intriguing storylines? How about Santino Ferrucci getting the call Sunday morning as a last-minute substitute for the concussed Jack Harvey? All he did was start dead-last and finish ninth. And if all that wasn’t enough, Jimmie Johnson earned a strong sixth-place finish in his IndyCar oval debut.

Yesterday’s IndyCar race from Texas had it all – except for fans in attendance. If the fate of this race had not already been predetermined, the low attendance on such a perfect day weather-wise, may be the determining factor. From what we could see on television, there wasn’t much of a walk-up crowd.

Yesterday morning, I saw where Jenna Fryer of the Associated Press said she was at the track this weekend. She commented that she saw or heard nothing all weekend to let the locals know that there was a major auto racing event going on at TMS this weekend. Apparently, the amount of promotion done by the track was zero. You get what you pay for. She noted that Saturday’s qualifying session had the feel of a tire test, rather than a major sporting event.

World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway and Iowa Speedway (under the direction of Penske Entertainment, as a track rental) seem to have discovered the secret to promoting oval tracks in their local areas. Even though the NCAA Tournament was also taking place in Ft. Worth this weekend, you would think there would be more racing fans on-hand than what we saw yesterday.

Were they basing their decision to not attend on what they had seen for the past few seasons at Texas? They got a double-dose of a parade at Texas with the double-header format at Texas last May. I guess most fans figured that was enough to last them for a while.

If IndyCar officials can assure new track management that they can sustain the type of racing they saw yesterday – then maybe, just maybe, they can convince TMS officials that with the right promotion on their part, it would be good business to bring IndyCar back for another year. Eddie Gossage looked at the big picture – and he knew how to promote. Hopefully, this new administration can see past their nose also.

TV Coverage: I’m pretty sure the TV ratings will not be great, running directly against the NCAA Tournament. That being said, I thought NBC did a good job throughout the weekend. Their coverage on Peacock for practice and qualifying was outstanding, even though they were short-handed. Kevin Lee and Townsend Bell were both busy covering Sebring on Saturday, before boarding a plane late Saturday and flying to Texas. Leigh Diffey and James Hinchcliffe managed in the booth together, but they solicited the service of NBC’s Nate Ryan to fill in as a pit reporter and I thought he did an admirable job.

I’m also thankful that they gave us an extended post-race show over on Peacock. They did a good job with it, interviewing several of the drivers after the race was over, and wrapped it up with another interview with Josef Newgarden, that was much more candid and relaxed after he had a few moments to decompress from such an emotional victory.

My one complaint is for James Hinchcliffe. Rookie driver Devlin DeFrancesco hails from Canada, as does Hinchcliffe. DeFrancesco punted Takuma Sato into the Turn Two wall, bringing out a caution. Shortly after the race went green, Kyle Kirkwood got up into the gray, lost control of the car and hit the Turn Four wall hard. DeFrancesco was right there when Kirkwood’s car snapped around. When Townsend Bell suggested that DeFrancesco may have caused both of those yellows, Hinchcliffe was quick to come to DeFrancesco’s defense. Shortly after the next re-start, DeFrancesco directly caused the three-car crash that involved himself, Graham Rahal and Helio Castroneves. Before the replay was shown, Bell once again suggested that DeFrancesco caused the three yellows. Hinchcliffe again defended DeFrancesco until the replay clearly showed that DeFrancesco was totally at fault. Hinchcliffe then went silent.

Not only is Hinch tight with DeFrancesco, he is also keeping his options open for this year’s Indianapolis 500, just in case Andretti runs a sixth car – the same team Devlin DeFrancesco drives for. If Hinchcliffe is going to be a credible analyst in the booth, he cannot worry about calling out his friends or former competitors, DeFrancesco will be a decent driver by all accounts one day, but on Sunday – he had a bad day. Hinchcliffe owes it to viewers to speak up when he sees a driver screw up. That’s his job. It’s not to spread sunshine on all the drivers.

Proper Vetting? If you watched the race, you no doubt saw the commercials for Skechers Footwear featuring former NASCAR driver Rusty Wallace. It ran at least three times during yesterday’s telecast – maybe more. It starts off with Rusty driving some type of race car with doors and a roof. The first words he utters are “For tires, I only trust Goodyear – so I wear Skechers with Goodyear rubber…” He mentions Goodyear three times in the spot promoting traction, durability, etc.

Who approved this spot? Having Wallace tout Goodyear tires, in a commercial during a televised sport partially funded by Firestone is not a good look.

I put these sentiments out on Twitter during the race, and was told something to the effect that beggars can’t be choosers, and that IndyCar can’t tell NBC who to sell sponsorship to. I will admit I don’t fully understand how advertising sales works, but I know when Verizon was the title sponsor of the series – there could be no competing ads (such as AT&T or T-Mobile) nor could any cars carry any sponsorship from any competing brand. I also know, if I was Firestone – I would be making phone calls to Roger Penske and/or NBC. I would not be happy if I was Firestone and a former NASCAR champion was telling viewers during commercial breaks that he only trusts Goodyear.

Remember in 2004. when Tony Stewart climbed into AJ Foyt’s Toyota-powered car, teasing viewers that he might run the 500 that year? Chevrolet, Stewart’s engine manufacturer at the time, was not amused. Viewers watched as Stewart answered his cell phone in the background and immediately crawled out of the cockpit. Apparently, it was Joe Gibbs relaying Chevy’s displeasure seeing their driver in a Toyota-powered car. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Stewart move so quickly. He couldn’t distance himself from that car fast enough.

I may be wrong, but I’ll be surprised if we see that ad run on an IndyCar telecast ever again.

Super Sub: Longtime IndyCar fans are used to hearing the nickname Super Sub, when discussing driver Roberto Moreno in the eighties and nineties. We now have a new driver that has earned that moniker – Santino Ferrucci.

I’m not sure that Jack Harvey’s tenure with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (RLLR) could have gone any worse than it has over the first two races. He crashed his car in practice at St. Petersburg, forcing his team to pull an all-nighter to get his Hy-Vee car ready for race morning. On Saturday, he destroyed his car in the final practice. The team had to resort to Harvey’s backup and spent most of the night getting it ready to race. Early Sunday morning, Harvey was re-examined by the IndyCar medical team, and it was determined he had suffered a concussion in Saturday’s crash and was not allowed to drive.

Saturday night, a call was placed to Santino Ferrucci to be ready just in case. At 9:00 Sunday morning, the call was made and Santino was named to fill-in. Without his seat yet in the car, he was allowed to shake the car down for a few laps. Wearing an ill-fitted Hy-Vee firesuit that was made for the much larger Jack Harvey, Ferrucci climbed into the car and started at the back of the field. Ferrucci not only kept his nose clean, he drove a heads-up race (avoiding crashed cars directly in front of him) and advanced to the Top-Ten, finishing ninth. He was the highest finishing RLLR driver on a team that had a horrible weekend otherwise.

Last year, Ferrucci drove five races in the Hy-Vee car. I thought he had done enough to get the ride, but Harvey was chosen instead. It is my understanding that Ferrucci was too hard on equipment and that was ultimately why Harvey was chosen over Ferrucci. Looking at Harvey’s last two race weekends and what Ferrucci did yesterday, you have to wonder if RLLR is re-thinking their decision.

Andretti Woes: RLLR was not the only team that was probably happy to leave the Ft. Worth area this weekend. Andretti Autosport (AA) had a weekend they’d probably like to forget, as well. Their qualifying was not good, but their race results were awful.

Alexander Rossi continues to have unbelievably bad luck. It’s bad enough to have Brian Barnhart as your race strategist, if he continues to make bad calls like he did at St. Petersburg. But his race was over before it started yesterday, starting twelfth and going out with electrical gremlins on Lap 11. In a contract year that needed vast improvement, Rossi now finds himself trailing in the points to four drivers that have started only one race – Ferrucci, Harvey, Ed Carpenter and JR Hildebrand. None of this is his fault, but those are the standings nonetheless. Ouch!

Romain Grosjean had a mediocre qualifying run, but mechanical gremlins bit him also on Lap 103. Rossi and Grosjean finished twenty-seventh and twenty-sixth in a twenty-seven car field.

But at least their cars came home in one piece. Devlin DeFrancesco went through a big learning course on ovals as he was partially involved in two other incidents, before taking himself and two other cars to the wall on Lap 128, finishing twenty-fourth after starting seventeenth. Let’s hope he learned from his teachable moments yesterday.

The only Andretti driver to finish was Colton Herta, but I’m sure he was very disappointed with his day. Herta started ninth, but finished a very silent twelfth – after starting out like he was shot out of a cannon. He soon cooled off, however, had a bad pit stop and was lucky to finish where he did.

This team is usually referred to as one of The Big Three, but this track has been their Achilles heel for some reason. An Andretti car has not won at Texas since 2004 (Tony Kanaan). Coincidence?

Back on Top: For the past two seasons, I have had a theory that Team Penske was suffering with the absence of Roger Penske on the pit box. Once Penske bought IndyCar and IMS, he was forced to give up any day-to-day running of the team and was certainly expected to remove himself from the pits on Race Day. Since that purchase in November of 2019, Team Penske has not seemed to be the same team. They bungled pit stops, sometimes seemed lost for entire race weekends, and had two very forgettable Months of May.

That was then, this is now. The season is still very young, but Team Penske has reasserted itself back where it usually is – on top.

At St. Petersburg, Scott McLaughlin won the pole and Will Power started second, alongside McLaughlin on the front row. McLaughlin won the race, while Power finished third. Yesterday, for much of the race, Penske drivers ran one-two-three. McLaughlin led 188 laps, while Power led the next most with twenty. Josef Newgarden only led three laps all day, but he led the one that counted – the last lap.

Team Penske drivers currently sit first, second and fourth in points – McLaughlin, Power and Newgarden respectively. Alex Palou, the only non-Penske driver breaking up that trio, is third. For the record, Marcus Ericson and Scott Dixon round out the other two positions in the Top-Six. It looks like another classic Penske/Ganassi battle shaping up.

McLaren Woes: After Felix Rosenqvist won the pole and Pato O’Ward qualified tenth as the most recent winner at Texas; it would be safe to assume that Arrow McLaren SP was poised to have a good day at Texas. They didn’t.

Rosenqvist lost the lead just before the end of Lap One and never led a lap. O’Ward dazzled at times, but he and Rosenqvist both self-destructed on the same sequence of pit stops, just before the half-way point. Both came in too hot. O’Ward struck his left-front tire changer and incurred a penalty. Rosenqvist overshot his pit box and had to be pushed back, costing him tons of time. Rosenqvist ended up with a broken half-shaft, going out on Lap 138. Rosenqvist ended up finishing twenty-first, while O’Ward was still running at the end, down a lap and finishing an unremarkable fifteenth.

Like Rossi, Rosenqvist desperately needs a better season than last year. Currently, Rosenqvist sits in nineteenth, while O’Ward is thirteenth. This is a team in need of a good finish…and soon.

Texas Debuts: Seven drivers made their debuts at Texas and six of those drivers were running their first oval in an Indy car. The results were mixed.

Romain Grosjean had run at Gateway last year, but this was his first appearance at Texas. He didn’t crash, but even before he fell out on Lap 103 with mechanical issues, he was not having a great day. He qualified thirteenth and finished twenty-sixth.

Looking at Kyle Kirkwood’s results of starting twenty-third and finishing twenty-fifth, you would assume he had a bad day. But the rookie driver for AJ Foyt actually had an outstanding day. He pitted early during the Rossi caution on Lap 12, and got fresh tires. He immediately worked his way from the rear to mid-pack and was actually running in the Top-Ten for most of that stint after he pitted later than everyone else, he was running sixteenth before finding the wall on Lap 114. This rookie is quickly becoming one of my favorite drivers to watch.

Devlin DeFrancesco had a horrible day yesterday. I’ve already chronicled it, and it doesn’t need rehashing. But he was another oval rookie that had a day to forget – except he needs to remember it…and learn from it.

Christian Lundgaard was having a decent day, until he wasn’t. He brushed the wall late and held on to finish nineteenth.

Callum Ilott brought the car home in one piece for his oval debut. However, his day might be remembered most for being a backmarker late in the race, possibly affecting the outcome on the final lap.

By far, the best rookie performance belonged to Jimmie Johnson. He qualified eighteenth and ran a very careful and conservative race – sometimes running as low2 as twenty-third. But around the halfway point, he started feeling confident and trusting his car more. He began steadily moving up and made some strong race moves in the second half of the race. In the late stages, he was running as high as fifth, but he was in a late race duel with teammate Scott Dixon. Dixon’s experience at Texas paid off and Dixon would end up fifth, while Johnson finished sixth.

Good Start: Not only is Team Penske off to a good start, but so is Chevy. In 2020 and 2021, Honda won the Indianapolis 500 and the championship both seasons. It’s early, but so far – Chevy has won the pole for both races, swept the front row for both races and won both races. It looks the bow-tie brigade did their homework in the offseason.

All in All: I can’t remember the last time I watched a race at Texas and came away so fulfilled. Sometimes pack races are so tense at Texas, they aren’t enjoyable. You sigh a sense of relief when there is a yellow flag for debris, just so you can catch your breath. It can be exhausting, it’s so nerve-wracking.

Sunday did not provide many white-knuckle moments, and that’s a good thing. When Texas doesn’t have pack racing, it usually goes to the other extreme and becomes a very boring processional – where most of the passing takes place in the pits.

Yesterday struck the perfect balance of excitement and suspense, without the feeling that someone may be seriously injured. There were some spectacular moments, but the only things that got hurt were a few feelings and egos.

If Texas does not return to the IndyCar schedule in 2023, it is not due to the series not trying to make it work. It worked yesterday. Personally, I want to see the NTT IndyCar Series return to Texas next year and beyond. If they can do what they did yesterday – they should. Time will tell.

George Phillips

15 Responses to “Random Thoughts on Texas”

  1. Great race. Pity more drivers did not join the Saturday half hour second lane run. I think they should have been made to. Andretti did not have one car out nor Foyt. Fantastic stuff from Joseph, Scott, Marcus, Jimmie, Santino while some pretty crass mistakes from some seasoned drivers who should have known better. Andretti and RLL with a lot of work to do. One is reminded that consistency and speed wins championships so Penske looking good.

  2. Also great sadness the promotors did not promote. Tells us there presumably is no long term future for this race just when they are beginning to sort it out.

  3. Here’s wishing a full recovery to Jack Harvey.

    Thanks for your thoughts on the race. Due to conflicting time zones (CET), I haven’t watched it in full yet, but it must have been a good one.

    Date equity is key, so it is no surprise that the crowd on site was slim. When I saw the calendar, that’s what I expected, I’m afraid. With Eddie Gossage gone as president of TMS, who knows if this series will be back next year? After this event, they definitely should. But at the usual date in June. Taking over the COTA date from 2019 didn’t work.

    Ferrucci has clearly shown he belongs in this series. It must be quite a relief for Team Rahal that he scored a Top 10 result for them, after all that they have been through this weekend.

    • billytheskink Says:

      I don’t believe Indycar will return to TMS in June unless/until the NASCAR all-star race, which is now in June at TMS) is moved to another venue or date. Frankly, I don’t think TMS was very thrilled with this March date either, as it is the week before the NASCAR race at COTA (which TMS promotes), but took it at Indycar and NBC’s request.

      I rather liked the March date because of the weather, which was beautiful all weekend. It wasn’t just good for keeping fans cool and dry, it was likely good for the racing action too, keeping track temperatures lower than the summer races at TMS and helping the tires grip better.

  4. S0CSeven Says:

    TV coverage:

    First, Peacock isn’t available north of the border.

    Second, the race started on NBC halfway through the pre-race show and was already at lap 30 when the regular telecast began. It was just blind luck if you saw the whole race.
    When the race ended – wham – the show was over. No Peacock remember?

    I thought it was a mess.

    • Have you tried using a VPN to get Peacock? There’s a small monthly cost, but you can use it to obscure your device’s origin (from CAN to USA). I don’t know if a Canadian credit card is accepted for a subscription, but perhaps a fellow Canadian fan of IndyCar has this figured out.

  5. James T Suela Says:

    Well George I think you nailed it. It was a great race. My man Newgarden was spot on. Johnson finally did a great job

  6. billytheskink Says:

    It was a great race with a lot of excellent racing action, a real pleasure to watch in person. Kudos to Indycar, TMS, and the teams and drivers who participated in the special rubbering session on Saturday. That, the lovely weather, and the extra downforce made available did wonders for the show yesterday and I’m encouraged by the cooperation shown by all parties in trying to make things better for those attending and watching. I’m not as encouraged by the crowd, though I believe it was larger than either one last year and I know for near certain it was larger than the maudlin low-ball estimates that I have seen in some corners of the internet. I think the race’s ability to sell title sponsorship and suites will be more important than the grandstand crowd as to whether the race will return (I certainly hope it does), but obviously a large crowd overall than we saw yesterday would help.

    I don’t think the quality of Jimmie Johnson’s performance can be overstated. After spending the first half of the race looking like he was trying to build a rivalry with David Malukas (who drove the kind of clean but competitive rookie race DeFrancesco should have), he wound up mixing it up and passing multiple Texas winners and Indycar champions (!!!), often on the outside. Palou, Pagenaud, Dixon all fell to Johnson as he charged, and he even challenged Will Power for 4th for a time. I was very impressed, and was happy for the Johnson fans in the crowd as they cheered every pass.

    I really didn’t think Newgarden had enough time to catch McLaughlin after Herta didn’t let him by behind Scott going into turn one with 2 to go… what a great recovery and great drive by Josef.

  7. This race at Texas has the feel of what ultimately happened at Phoenix. Both tracks have been altered to suit NASCAR by NASCAR. NASCAR continues to behind the scenes silently kill IndyCar. Im not sure I buy this b.s about IndyCar and NASCAR wanting to work together (i.e. banning IndyCar to the parking lot at IMS last year). My son and I were skiing and listened to the race on Sirius
    XM radio. Yes for those that don’t know there actually is a IndyCar channel on satellite radio it is minimalist kind of like the marketing at TMS. The race sounded great without even seeing it. I watched it later when we got home because I was curious and very afraid on what the fan attendance was going to be like. If you had been watching at all since Saturday you knew it was going to be bad on race day and sure enough it was. Thats what happens when there is no marketing . How many more ovals are they trying to kill? The empty stands look terrible and it just kills the atmosphere. Another barren empty oval look on a Sunday. What a shame this is for IndyCar for what was a great race. I don’t think anyone really could ask for anything better and yet no one was there to witness it. The post race was great on Peacock (if you have it) and I too set the DVR to record the race on USA and it starts on lap 30. If I was a new fan I would be like wtf? I guess if you record on NBC you had better be sure to record the pre-race as well or you could miss 30 laps of the race. No big deal right? I usually don’t record the pre race because I get tired of Leigh Diffey artificially over-enthusiastically hyping the previous races that we have already seen in this case just one.

    I have to say overall I am disappointed with the races on big NBC. Initially it sounded like a big leap forward. I realize there is better exposure for IndyCar. What if you didn’t have Peacock? You would be IMO thoroughly perplexed but the lack of coverage and then you see the empty stands and you would ask yourself “what the hell is this?”

  8. 1. Note to self: Never doubt The Captain. I was starting to think Team Penske might not be the same since Roger transitioned away from running his team on race weekends. Plus I thought he may have missed with the McLaughlin hire. Well…..you see the results two races in this year. Yeah, never doubt Penske.

    2. Best show IndyCar’s put on at TMS in some time. If they don’t bring ’em back, you can’t blame the series. They showed up with 27 on grid and delivered a great race.

    3. At some point we all need to stop using the term “bad luck” to describe what’s happening at Andretti Autosport. In my mind, luck (good or bad) is a random thing that doesn’t occur with great frequency. When it’s systematic, as seems to be the case here, there’s something more than “bad luck” at cause. What is it? Your guess is as good as mine. Focus? Attention to detail? Is Michael’s head too far up in the F1 clouds to notice whether or not the people he employs are effectively doing their jobs? Maybe.

  9. Bruce Waine Says:

    Based upon seats occupied at TMS during the race yesterday, it would be interesting to learn the income realized from Ticket sales plus advertising revenue versus the total cost to TMS to open & operate plus additional cost of INDY Car sanctioning fee.

    Any guesses?

    If cost exceeded income, why continue to lose by holding an INDY Car race?

  10. Considering that Colton Herta has been the only consistent performer at Andretti Autosport since 2020, I no longer believe in the “Big 3”.

  11. Had a great time at TMS this weekend. An absolutely fantastic race. Jimmie Johnson did a great job. He did gain some positions through attrition but then looked like everything clicked for him and began making some really good passes.
    We also had a gentlemen roll up to us in the parking lot while we were tailgating on Saturday asking if it was the Xfinity Series racing. He had absolutely no idea. I hope not, but it looks like the writing is on the wall for Texas.

  12. three things:

    1.”I may be wrong, but I’ll be surprised if we see that ad run on an IndyCar telecast ever again.” i would be willing to bet wrong.
    2. slim crowd, slim ratings, slim chance.
    3. a great race that no one i know saw.

  13. Kudos to NBC for providing a post race show on Peacock. Now, please show all 27 entrants on the stats column during all broadcasts. Hurrah to Jimmie J and his top 10 finish and to Josef and Scott Mc for the best finish at Texas in ages.

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