This is the one that everybody was talking about whether it was 24 degrees of banking, pack racing, or location of posts in the catch fence. For the first time since the death of Dan Wheldon at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the IZOD IndyCar Series haulers loaded into a high-banked 1.5 Mile oval track to compete in the Firestone 550k at Texas Motor Speedway. The oval track just north of Fort Worth has been regarded as IndyCar’s second home for years hosting more races under INDYCAR sanction than any other facility. Track President Eddie Gossage is given substantial credit for saving IndyCar racing during the darkest days of the split by providing solid promotion for his IndyCar events coupled with the amazing racing that has been produced at his track over the years. Texas had become synonymous with side-by-side pack racing while exciting for the fans, the drivers will no longer tolerate. The aftermath of Wheldon’s death saw drivers calling into question the viability and safety of racing on tracks like Texas as well as safety at these facilities since the fence posts are inside the mesh on the catch fence. Wheldon’s cause of death was determined as blunt force trauma to the head after he struck one of the posts. Driver concerns aside, the race remained on the 2012 IndyCar schedule while the similarly configured Las Vegas Motor Speedway was removed. The week prior to the race at Texas, drivers held a meeting with technical director Will Phillips and race director Beaux Barfield in an attempt to develop an aerodynamic package with the DW12 IndyCar that would eliminate the pack racing. The solution offered by the drivers, and employed by the series, was to run the cars with very low downforce making it impossible to run flat around the racetrack. The question was would it work?
As the first practice approached, the tension was apparent through the Paddock. Would our aerodynamic changes work, or will we be forced to endure pack racing that we said was intolerable? The answer came very early in the session. With the low downforce, the DW12s were a handful for drivers and they had to lift in the turns which is what the drivers wanted all along. Some drivers were happy with the setups and rose to the top of the pylon while others struggled through practice. Dario Franchitti topped the chart. A short turn-around from practice to qualifying put tremendous pressure on the crews as they sifted through the mountain of data to determine a qualifying setup. When was all said and done the first four qualifying positions fell to Honda powered teams with Chip Ganassi Racing capturing three of the top-four. Will Power and James Hinchcliffe occupied row three as the highest qualifiers for Chevrolet. Alex Tagliani pulled the huge upset capturing the Pole from Chip Ganassi Racing.
Qualifying was in the books and all was left was to run the 500 kilometer distance of the race. The race turned out to be a fantastic show with the side-by-side racing that has become IndyCar’s signature on these oval tracks but the field was strung out thus eliminating the pack racing. The handling characteristics of the cars caught out the likes of Charlie Kimball and Takuma Sato as they both hit the wall early in the race ending their day. The first half of the race was dominated by Scott Dixon who led over 100 laps in the race, but his day came to an end when he touched the apron trying to navigate traffic sending the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Honda into the turn four wall.
The race restarted with about 50 laps to the finish with Will Power leading followed by Ryan Briscoe, Tony Kanaan, and Helio Castroneves. The green flag flew and Briscoe immediately moved to the outside to make a pass on his teammate for the lead when Kanaan moved to the inside to make it three wide. Power made a reactive blocking move causing Kanaan’s front wing to hit the rear wheel guard of the No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet. The result was Kanaan having to pit for a new front wing, his second wing change of the night, and Power serving a drive-through penalty for blocking removing both drivers from contention for the race win. Meanwhile, the other two Team Penske cars fell off opening the door for Graham Rahal and Justin Wilson to claim the top-2 positions. Rahal looked to have the race locked up until he grazed the turn 4 wall with two laps to go giving the win to Justin Wilson. The win is Wilson’s third since the open wheel unification in 2008 and his first on an oval.
This race was a huge win for IndyCar as they worked with their drivers and technical officials to create a package that would provide the side-by-side racing action that made IndyCar racing on ovals famous while eliminating the outragous and dangerous pack racing. There were only three incidents in the race and they were all single car crashes with the safety measures of the DW12 performing outstandingly. The race at Texas, in a single evening, changed from being a race that the drivers were happy to leave to a race that they want to do again. The chatter about fence posts and high banks is likely over now that IndyCar has put the driver back into the equation and cars flying into the catch fence is a less likely happenstance that way. This Texas race also opens up the possibility of a return trip to Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2013 to honor the final year of that contract although IndyCar will want to test at the facility before committing to a 2013 IZOD IndyCar World Championship race there. Hopefully, Texas remains on the schedule as well giving IndyCar two high-banked 1.5 Mile ovals next season because they are as good as it gets in IndyCar racing.
Also of note, Rubens Barrichello and Simona de Silvestro’s days ended before they began as their cars did not fire after the ‘Boys and Girls Start Your Engines’. de Silvestro suffered a fuel pressure problem while Barrichello had problems with the ECU unit in the engine. Both did not start the race.
The IZOD IndyCar Series returns to the historic Milwaukee Mile on Father’s Day weekend. The race is being promoted by Michael Andretti and is the last chance for the foreseeable future for the track to remain on the IndyCar schedule. The 2011 race drew an abysmal 15,000 people. Hopefully it’s well attended because IndyCar’s are great there.
CONGRATULATIONS TO JUSTIN WILSON AND DALE COYNE RACING:
WINNERS OF THE FIRESTONE 550K AT TEXAS MOTOR SPEEDWAY
R.I.P. DAN WHELDON