Race Weekend Central

2023 IndyCar PPG 375 Preview

Hello again, IndyCar. It’s been a while.

It’s been almost exactly a month since the first race of the NTT IndyCar Series season, and North America’s premier open-wheel racing series is ready to take its second step towards determining a 2023 champion in Sunday’s (April 2) PPG 375, over 250 laps of the always-controversial Texas Motor Speedway.

And when I say “always,” I mean “always.”

The 1.5-mile intermediate oval in Fort Worth debuted on the IndyCar schedule in 1997– or, wait, the post-split Indy Racing League schedule. As Mike Knapp wrote in this week’s Inside IndyCar, the inaugural open-wheel race at Texas saw Billy Boat celebrating in victory lane, but Arie Luyendyk eventually awarded the victory. 

And that’s nothing compared to then-rival CART’s 2001 debut at the venue, which was called off just two hours before the scheduled green flag after nearly every driver reported dizziness, vertigo, and brain fog after practice and qualifying. Ex-NASA scientists had to be called in to investigate, and concluded that the human body was simply incapable of sustaining the G-forces (in excess of 5.5G) necessary to lap the venue at sustained speeds over 225 mph. Paul Tracy’s fastest lap in practice averaged nearly 237.

In 2016, the now-long-since-reunited IndyCar series race was scheduled for June 11, although rain delayed the green flag until the next afternoon. Seventy-one laps into a scheduled 248, the rain came again, and stayed. Due to logistics issues, the race couldn’t be restarted for 76 days, until August 27th. Graham Rahal narrowly defeated James Hinchcliffe by 0.008 seconds, the closest finish in TMS history. 

See also
Inside IndyCar: A Long History at Texas

Perhaps the most pressing controversy relates to the track layout itself. After debuting with a complicated ‘split-banking’ setup designed to attract a CART race that never happened, (not to be confused with the previously-mentioned 2001 CART race that never happened) TMS was reconfigured midway through 1998, and repaved after 2001. The current 1.5-mile configuration dates to 2017 and features asymmetrical banking: turns 1 and 2 at 20 degrees, while 3 and 4 are banked at 24 degrees. 

This layout was designed to facilitate better racing in stock cars, but after it failed to impress TMS treated the high lanes with the PJ1 traction compound, a chemical which is treacherously slick in an IndyCar. As a result, IndyCar races have largely become single-file processions, as any attempt at a pass is a risky proposition with the “black ice” mere inches away.

Who to Watch:

Although, it seems nobody told Josef Newgarden. Last year, the two-time champion took advantage of lapped traffic to stick a gutsy move to the outside of his Team Penske teammate Scott McLaughlin in the final corner and narrowly beat him to the start/finish line to claim his second career win at TMS.

Newgarden will surely be a threat to defend his victory come Sunday, but McLaughlin is no slouch. The Kiwi has finished runner-up both times he’s suited up for IndyCar racing in the Lone Star State, and another second place run in the oval at WWT Raceway (again to Newgarden) shows that the former Australian Supercars champion has taken to turning left like a fish to water. 

Fellow Scott, fellow Kiwi, and six-time series champion Scott Dixon is the winningest driver in series history at Texas, with five cowboy hats in his Chip Ganassi Racing closet. Four of those victories were en route to championship glory, with only 2021 breaking the streak. While Dixon has a preternatural ability to show up at the end of races anywhere, Texas is one track where “the Iceman” has been nigh-unstoppable.

See also
The Gap: IndyCar's Scheduling Void

Also developing into quite an oval racer is Arrow McLaren’s Pato O’Ward, who scored his first career IndyCar series victory in the second half of 2021’s doubleheader, and earned his second oval victory in the second half of the Iowa doubleheader in 2022. While there’s only one race scheduled for this weekend, O’Ward’s strength on the ovals (he was runner up at Indy last year, the most recent race with the low-drag superspeedway aero kit) combined with a little extra motivation from finishing runner-up in St. Petersburg should make him one to watch when the green flag drops. 

Former F1 driver Takuma Sato developed into quite a speedway specialist in his full-time IndyCar career, and the two-time 500 winner is stepping into a part-time oval-only seat at the front-running Chip Ganassi Racing for 2023. He’ll be making his first start of the season at an oval at which he’s struggled to finish races (and in one case, even start) in the past, but perhaps Taku’s aggressive driving style is what’s needed to skirt the PJ1 and make up spots. Or it could send him into the SAFER barrier, but that’s “no attack, no chance” for you.

Also known for oval-track aggression is A.J. Foyt Racing’s Santino Ferrucci. Returning from a few years out of the series and eliminated on the first lap in Florida, the Connecticut driver will certainly be out to prove he hasn’t lost a beat. The question remains whether or not his No. 14 Chevy will have enough speed to compete.

Frontstretch Race Prediction

  1. Scott McLaughlin
  2. Josef Newgarden
  3. Pato O’Ward

I leave you with this save from Alexander Rossi in the 2019 running of this race. 

Beautiful.

The 2023 NTT IndyCar Series PPG 375 at Texas Motor Speedway airs this Sunday, April 2, at 12:00 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock.

About the author

Jack Swansey primarily covers open-wheel racing for Frontstretch and co-hosts The Pit Straight Podcast, but you can also catch him writing about NASCAR, sports cars, and anything else with four wheels and a motor. Originally from North Carolina and now residing in Los Angeles, he joined the site as Sunday news writer midway through 2022 and is an avid collector (some would say hoarder) of die-cast cars.

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