Tension surrounds IndyCar's stop at Texas
FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) -- The tension surrounding Texas Motor Speedway began in the offseason, when drivers still reeling from the death of Dan Wheldon questioned the compatibility of IndyCar and high-banked ovals.
It's led to a conflict between a track promoter who champions himself a longtime IndyCar supporter and the stars of the series who want to ensure they will be safe Saturday night when racing returns to Texas for a 16th consecutive year.
When the checkered flag falls Saturday night, the 24th running at Texas could very well be the final race around the 1.5-mile oval for IndyCar.
"We've had no discussion about anything, and as far as I'm concerned, we're running the race and we'll address 2013 when the race is over," TMS President Eddie Gossage said Friday. "I run a race track. I want to run races, and we've had spectacular races over the years. But at the same time there it has grown increasingly difficulty in dealing with these folks. And, at some point, you have to decide if the pain is worth the trouble.
"What has happened of late really just sucks the passion out of you, and it's really hard to be passionate when you have been there and supported -- some may even say saved IndyCar racing -- and you feel like you are due a little respect and loyalty and courtesy. I don't think we are alone in this category of feeling this way, and it's absolutely puzzling."
TMS and IndyCar are dealing with several issues. Among them is the high sanctioning fee the series charges the track, and a date shift this year that gave Belle Isle the slot after the Indianapolis 500 that Texas usually held. Gossage did not think a different race date warranted the same fee from IndyCar.
But the greatest concern is safety, stemming from Wheldon's fatal October accident at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The two-time Indianapolis 500 winner died when his head hit a fence post, but there were several mitigating factors that the accident report cited as contributing to the 15-car accident.
Among them was the pack racing on a high-banked oval, the crowded 34-car field of drivers of varying experience and a track wide enough that allowed drivers to run three-wide at more than 220 mph.
The drivers immediately began fretting over Texas, which marks the first high-banked oval race since Wheldon's death. They are unanimous in not wanting Saturday night's race to feature any sort of pack racing and met privately as a group last weekend in December to vote on suggestions for IndyCar officials.
What they came up was a recommended level of less downforce that IndyCar accepted.
"I think that really helped the whole group calm down because we felt like IndyCar is listening to us, and listened to our concerns," said Justin Wilson, the de facto leader of the driver group, who noted the downforce recommendation came on a unanimous driver vote.
"The biggest concern for all of us is the pack racing. People want to be able to drive the cars, but they want to be in control. We're OK with danger if it's our responsibility. If you go into a corner and drive too fast and crash and get hurt, well, you screwed up or something happened or it was racing. The thing that concerns everyone is just that unknown when everyone is (racing) flat out, just waiting for something to happen. None of us want to do that."
In decreasing the downforce, the cars should be more difficult to drive, thus separating the pack.
"We want to make it so it's not just musical chairs and who is in the lead when the music stops," Wilson said. "That's what some of the pack racing can get like, and we want to make it where you've got to earn it."
The desired effect seemed to be achieved through Friday's practice session, which received mixed reactions by drivers having to adjust to not being able to run wide open.
"I think it's great," Graham Rahal posted on Twitter. "Yes, it's a damn handful, but it should be."
Another matter at Texas is the construction of the fence, which is similar to the one at Las Vegas with the fence posts located inside the fencing. Drivers seem to agree that they'd like the posts outside the fence, but track owner Speedway Motorsports Inc. has been steadfast in the belief that the current construction is the safest option.
No driver has sounded off more about the fences than Oriol Servia, who apologized this week for taking jabs at Gossage on Twitter. He is now trying to shift the focus from the fences to a safe Saturday night race.
"I am not a guy always out there complaining about this bump or that curve," Servia said. "But this matter, it's one that really just drives me nuts, and I think that should give it some weight because I am not a complainer. I am not somebody out there every weekend complaining. This is one matter that means that much to me."
Gossage is puzzled with Servia's stance.
"I've never met him and never spoken to him, still haven't," he said Friday. "What he tweets, it's up to him. But the fact we've never even talked about it, it just makes it that much more bizarre."
The many unknowns created speculation during the offseason that IndyCar's drivers would boycott the race. Even last week there was talk the drivers would either form a pact that would create an essential 500-mile parade or agree to be patient until the end of the race.
Scott Dixon dismissed it as nonsense.
"It will be a race. Everybody will race," he said. "They may say something different before they get in the cars, but when they get out there, they will race."
The most overlooked issue might stem from last month at Indianapolis. At least three cars tilted on their sides -- open cockpit facing the fence -- in accidents. Chassis manufacturer Dallara studied what happened and altered the underwing supports of the cars to create more vertical stiffness. The decision was made after testing and simulations showed that the stiffness was likely contributing to the car lifting slightly off the track.
Of the three accidents that occurred in the Indy 500 after the change by Dallara, only Mike Conway's car turned into the fence, and the car was helped by a second impact from Will Power. That's all IndyCar can do right now based on the limited data it has with the new Dallara DW-12 on ovals.
"It's as easy to make it worse as it is to make it better. If we rush to do something with limited data, we may make it worse," said Will Phillips, IndyCar's vice president of technology. "Can we make it safer still? Of course. But there's always going to be a concern -- it's motor racing, it's not a sport you can guarantee is safe."