Coming from the tight, old bullring at Milwaukee to the open, fast, high-banked TMS complex, where everything is "Big!" and "New!" has always been a bit of a culture shock, and this year was no different.
It first hits you as you drive west on Highway 114 from the airport. You come over a slight rise in the road and-boom!-you see the huge front-stretch grandstands facing you, and the tall (12-story?) Speedway Club suite complex. And, you're still five miles away from the track....
The Texas event was also our second of six races this year on 1.5-mile ovals. That's a big chunk of this year's 17-race schedule, so teams that are strong here are gonna be championship contenders (thank you, Captain Obvious). At Kansas, that had been the Ganassi twins, led by Dixie.
There were a few changes to note in the garage area. Paul Tracy had already had enough "fun" driving around an evil-handling A.J. Foyt car at Milwaukee, and as much as he wanted to race at Texas, I think Paul realized that the prospect of hauling the Foyt car around at an aero-dependent track like Texas was going to be an exercise in futility, so A.J. IV was in the #14 car.
After skipping Milwaukee (and almost missing Indy), Conquest was back at Texas with Alex Tagliani, his first time at Texas Motor Speedway since the infamous CART "non-race" in 2001. Sarah Fisher was also back, as planned.
Finally, veteran "old guard" IRL racer Jaques Lazier was aboard Greg Beck's Team 3G Dallara, in place of rookie/NASCAR transfer Stanton Barrett, who had missed Indy and had a heavy crash in the opening practice at Milwaukee. But Beck's very small team was still putting the car back together in the garage area throughout Thursday afternoon and evening, and Lazier missed the opening practice session.
We also faced our typically weird Texas schedule, with practice Thursday night, a final practice and qualifying Friday and the race on Saturday night. This could be a two-day show for both series (Thursday-Friday for the NASCAR trucks and Friday-Saturday for IndyCars), but track promoter Eddie Gossage wants BOTH series running on Thursday-so we did.
Dan Wheldon led that Thursday practice, followed by Danica Patrick and Ryan Briscoe. The Ganassi boys were fourth and fifth, led by Dario so, at least at the time, the field looked to be a bit more balanced than at Kansas.
The second practice, held during the heat of the day on Friday, was a bit more telling, as Team Penske moved to the front, with Wheldon slipping to third. This was a good indicator of race speed, as most teams worked on race setups in this session after using Thursday night to work on the changes needed for qualifying. As on Thursday night, this session was also incident-free, unless you count the camera mount falling off Mario Moraes's car.
Off track, the Dreyer & Reinbold team held a press conference to announce that Tomas Scheckter would run with them for most of the rest of the season, thanks to health-drink sponsor Mona Vie stepping up, skipping only the road courses at Watkins Glen, Mid-Ohio and Infineon. Good news for Tomas, DRR and the series.
Qualifying was next, and Dario Franchitti took the pole, followed by Briscoe, Dixon and Castroneves. Behind the "Red Teams," Danica was best of the rest for AGR, followed by Moraes (who continued to impress, at least in practice), Wheldon, Marco A., "Bobby D" Doornbos and Ed Carpenter.
Meanwhile, normal Texas front-runner Tony Kanaan was mired back in 16th, still sore from his massive Indy crash and most definitely not happy. After writing off Mutoh's original backup car at the "500," and his own primary car with major damage from his Milwaukee fire, TK was back in his early-season backup car, a chassis that just hasn't worked for him any time he's used it this year.
Perhaps it's a hidden delamination issue in the tub, perhaps it's something else. In any event, it's a car Tony wants retired to show-car duty ASAP.
This was Dario's first time running Ganassi "Energizer" colors, a good-looking blue paint scheme that had been campaigned four previous times by teammate Dixon-and won all four times (Watkins Glen once, and twice at Nashville). No pressure, then.
Oh yeah, there was a truck race later that night. A truck won. I don't know which one, I was already back at the Marriott bar....
Next came Race Day and the biggest (literally!) off-track news was the appearance of Shaquille O'Neal, the 15-time NBA All-Star now with the Phoenix Suns, as grand marshal and a charity partner of the Luczo Dragon team.
Now, I'm a fairly big guy (6'2", 195 lbs), but standing next to Shaq (who's 7'1" and 325 lbs-or more) makes me look like some kind of emaciated little person....
Luczo Dragon has partnered with several top athletes in recent years to raise money for various charities, more than $1 million to date. This was O'Neal's first IndyCar race and his first visit to Texas Motor Speedway, and he appeared to be impressed and enjoying himself.
In addition to giving the command to start engines, Shaq took part with the Luczo Dragon boys in a pre-race simulated pit stop, trying hard to keep up with the team regulars as he changed the right front wheel. He couldn't match their speed, but nobody else on the team could raise an entire wheel and tire assembly overhead with one hand, like he was spinning a dinner plate....
He also got to ride with Johnny Rutherford in the Honda Accord safety car on the pace lap to start the race. Truly, it must be good to be Shaq.
As for the race, we once again had a crash in the opening laps, as some drivers seemed to forget they were driving on a "green" race track-devoid of IndyCar's Firestone rubber and full of NASCAR's Goodyear leftovers. A BUNCH of guys got sideways here and there in the first lap, then Graham Rahal lost it all together exiting Turn 2 at the start of Lap 2, taking out E.J. Viso and Milka Duno on his way to hitting the inside wall. Scratch 3 from the field.
And for Viso, that made six DNF's in six races this year. Maybe it's time to re-think that Number 13, E.J.
On the restart, it soon became apparent that Penske-more specifically Briscoe-had a slightly better race setup, and Ryan set about absolutely dominating the race. Only a late caution and quicker stop from Castroneves kept Briscoe out of victory circle. It was Helio's third Texas win, tying him with Sam Hornish for the most IndyCar victories in Ft. Worth.
Until then, Ryan had been having a large, Texas-sized time, spanking the entire field, leading 160 of the 228 laps and at one point building up a HUGE, half-lap lead over the trailing Castroneves, Dixon & Co.
That all went away with a late-race, somewhat suspicious "debris" yellow, timed conveniently just within the window for final pit stops. Partly due to saving fuel by NOT leading, and partly due to having the pit stall nearest Pit-Out, Castroneves leap-frogged his teammate and was set to take his second win of the season.
Briscoe had to be content with just the bonus points for leading the most laps, and yet another second-place finish.
Speaking of disappointed, did I mention that the last stops were just barely inside the pit window? Well, somebody forgot to tell Dario that and-since he had a busy time trying to keep the strong-running Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti at bay-he ran out of fuel on the last lap, losing a position to Marco coming out of Turn 4.
And speaking of Marco, the littlest Andretti was steaming mad after the race. Seems that Little Miss Sunshine (aka "all bunnies and rainbows") Danica carved him up a bit while trying to defend fifth place in the closing laps (TV didn't show it, but Kanaan-who was just behind both of them-said as much after the race).
But after a couple of chops and blocks, Andretti eventually got by Danica for fifth, and then got a gift-wrapped present from Dario in the form of fourth place on the last lap. Hey, the post-race discussion between Patrick and Andretti made for fun TV, if nothing else.
- If nothing else, Saturday night races are good for our TV ratings, with the Versus broadcast from Texas earning a 0.36 rating (467,000 households). Now, that's not a number to do handstands over-for example Milwaukee the previous week on ABC was a 0.6 (852,000 households)-but it WAS a decided uptick from the Versus numbers for Long Beach and Indy qualifying. Baby steps, folks, baby steps. ESPN wasn't much of a force in the early days, either
- Speaking of Versus, I've got to criticize one aspect of the telecast: director Terry Lingner got his commercial timing wrong this week. Apparently thinking we'd have more yellows early in the contest, he held back from commercial breaks until nearly halfway through the race, then had to make up the difference by having frequent breaks between the final round of pit stops and the checkers, which kinda negated a lot of the late-race drama. Oh well, hindsight is always 20-20
- But props to Jon Beekhuis and the announce crew, who gave us some major props during the telecast, including a nice bit on the work being done to develop a safety switch connected to the refueling buckeye, to help reduce the instances of drivers exiting the pits with the fuel hose still attached
- The crowd was great, too. I would guess a legitimate 70,000+, maybe even 75,000. It was much larger than the previous night's Truck race attendance, and continued a pleasant trend where the IndyCar crowd turnout has been higher at every venue on the schedule this year, except for Kansas (and I blame both the weather and the stupidly late Sunday afternoon/evening starting time for that)
- Hey, all of you single girls out there (and even those listing themselves as "it's complicated" on FaceBook), Tony Kanaan and the fine folks at the indycar.com Web site are conducting a contest just for you. It's called "Let's Find a Girlfriend for Hideki." Seems that TK had taken pity on Mutoh's recent run of bad luck in the dating department and now you can e-mail him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photos and videos are encouraged. But any interested girls should be at least somewhat bi-lingual, as Hideki's English is, um, errr, "rudimentary" at best
- Texas also brought home something a lot of us noticed at both Kansas and Indy: we need to tweak "the package" a bit. For whatever reason, drivers are finding it nearly impossible this year to run side-by-side - or even closely nose-to-tail. Could be "dirty air" coming off the leading car, something with the tire construction, or a combination of factors. But we need to figure out what it is and fix it for Chicago, Motegi and Homestead. Normally, I'd include the Kentucky 1.5-miler as well, but I hear that track may have, other, more serious surface issues (i.e., major bumps) that must be addressed as well
- Finally, in the "No Rest for the Wicked Department", the week after Texas was - in theory - our first "off" weekend since Kansas. In practice, however, more than half the field went testing between Texas and Iowa. So we sent engineers to Chicagoland, Iowa, Richmond and Watkins Glen.