The NTT IndyCar Series and the state of Texas have a long and storied history which dates back 75 years and has included stops in Arlington, College Station and Austin.
Since 1997, IndyCar has called the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth home, a partnership that is now the third-longest in the series behind the Indianapolis 500 and the Grand Prix of Long Beach. The series returns to TMS this weekend for the PPG 375, as the season resumes after a four-week break since the 2023 season opener in St. Pete.
More than any other track, TMS truly represents the evolution of IndyCar since the mid-1990s. Its first race in June 1997 was held just over a year after the CART/IRL split and featured a 26-car field made up of a collective of young drivers like future NASCAR Cup champion Tony Stewart, drivers who likely would never have reached the top level of American open-wheel racing without the IRL, and old CART holdovers like Arie Luyendyk and Scott Goodyear.
In a crazy scene that was a harbinger of things to come at TMS, the race win was awarded to Billy Boat and saw a shoving match between Luyendyk and A.J. Foyt in Victory Lane, with the Dutchman claiming he was the winner of the race. Luyendyk appealed and was declared the winner after a review proved he had completed one more lap than the rest of the field.
With the IRL embracing a low horsepower/high downforce package, races at TMS were often high stakes Texas shootouts, with pack racing leading to plenty of thrilling racing and memorable finishes, and also plenty of danger.
On more than one occasion, the dark side of the sport also reared its ugly head, with several drivers took trips to the hospital as the result of injuries sustained from crashes on the high-banked, 1.5-mile oval.
Davey Hamilton suffered a huge, career-altering crash in 2001, and in 2003, 1999 Indy 500 winner Kenny Brack went up into the catch fence at the end of the back straightaway, suffering severe injuries that all but ended his career. Brack’s impact was measured at 214g’s, making it one of the biggest impacts in IndyCar history.
While the pack racing mentality has gone by the wayside, Texas still holds its reputation as a track with close racing and thrilling finishes. Some of the closest finishes in IndyCar history have occurred at TMS, with races being settled by hundreds, if not thousands of a second.
One of those close finishes occurred in 2022. Kiwi Scott McLaughlin, who started on the front row, dominated the race, leading 186 of the 248 laps. But in the race’s closing stages, Team Penske stablemate Josef Newgarden started cutting into that lead, and as they came to the white flag, Newgarden’s momentum was pulling him closer.
McLaughlin was held up by slower traffic, and Newgarden went to the high line and beat his teammate to the stripe and deny the Kiwi his first IndyCar oval victory by just .0669 seconds.
Unlike most years, when the race was held under the lights, the 2023 race will be a midday shootout under bright sun and temperatures in the mid-70s.
What kind of racing will fans see on Sunday? While the cooler temperatures will help, two other factors might bring back some of the closer racing that has made Texas famous.
One factor is the addition of aero pieces to the Dallara chassis that will add about 250 lbs of extra downforce on the cars. The second factor will be weather or not the cars will be able to use a second groove through the 20-degree banking in Turns 1 and 2, and the 24-degree slope in Turns 3 and 4.
Of course, in recent years, bringing the second groove into play has been hampered by the addition of the PJ1 compound that TMS puts down in an attempt to provide grip for the NASCAR series. That compound isn’t compatible with the Firestone tires used by IndyCar, and in the past drivers who have gone to that high line compare it to driving on ice.
No new PJ1 was applied during the 2022 off-season, which should help, as will an extra “high line” practice late Saturday afternoon. That will be a full-field practice, unlike last year when a handful of drivers were chosen to participate.
Getting the high line to work is vital. In race trim, laps click off in the 23-25 second range, meaning passes sometimes take a lap or more to complete. Given the cars are in the corners for almost half of that time, the high line coming in will make for better racing and more passing opportunities.
Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon is the winningest IndyCar driver at TMS, having gone to victory lane five times, and Sunday looks to make his 24th start at the track. Dixon, who first raced at TMS in 2003 and finished fifth in 2022, feels that Sunday’s race could have a little more of a familiar look to it.
“I think the combination of the additional aero, the high line practice, and maybe not having a fresh amount of whatever the NASCAR kind of surface stuff is on top will definitely (help),” Dixon said during an IndyCar media availability on Tuesday, March 28. “All three of those should make the second lane a little more usable, which will definitely tighten up the pack, and ultimately make it a lot more racy for everybody.
“I think for the drivers you just hope it doesn’t become a pack race. I don’t
think it’s going to be that extreme.”
Experience is a factor as well. Since the first post-open wheel unification race at TMS in 2008, the race has been won 11 times by a driver who is either an IndyCar champion or Indianapolis 500 winner, with three other winning drivers (Ryan Briscoe, Graham Rahal and Ed Carpenter) having made more than 100 career IndyCar starts at the time of their victory.
The only two exceptions are the late Justin Wilson, who won in 2012, and Pato O’Ward, whose victory in 2021 came in his 26th career start. O’Ward, who set the fastest lap of the race in 2022 but finished 15th due to a mid-race penalty, will again be a factor on Sunday.
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