Thursday, June 9, 2011

Texas Preview

If there’s an event on the schedule that can rival this year’s Indianapolis 500 in excitement, speed, and unpredictability, it’s the doubleheader at Texas Motor Speedway this weekend.

Last week, 65 year-old NASCAR team owner Richard Childress took exception with driver Kyle Busch’s actions, reportedly put him in a headlock, and punched him several times. Allegedly. Indy car fans may note that this is not the first time a cantankerous car owner has physically assaulted another team’s driver. Allegedly. Fourteen years ago, what was then called the IRL ran for the first time at the new-for-1997 Texas Motor Speedway. AJ Foyt driver Billy Boat was flagged the winner and his team gathered in victory lane to celebrate. Freshly crowned two-time Indy 500 winner Arie Luyendyk felt differently and was on his way to discuss his opinion of the results with… someone? AJ apparently didn’t appreciate this and kind of slapped/pushed Arie to the ground. Allegedly. The following day it was revealed that sanctioning body USAC had made a scoring error (allegedly), leading to the erroneous flagging of Boat as the winner and that the real winner was, in fact, Arie Luyendyk. (This was the second embarrassing public gaffe made by USAC in less than a fortnight. Allegedly. On the final lap of the Indianapolis 500, the flagman waved the green flag to unexpectedly end the last caution period. Adding to the confusion, the yellow caution lights remained on around the speedway as Arie took the green flag on the way to his second victory. Allegedly. The Texas race would be the last one sanctioned by USAC.)

Since 1997, Texas has become one of the cornerstones of the Indycar schedule. Well attended and adored by fans for its lap-after-lap side-by-side action, it is somewhat less popular with drivers. The current generation of Indy car is underpowered and overgripped here, leading to a situation not unlike restrictor plate NASCAR races: Drivers are forced to run side-by-side, in close quarters, and are unable to accelerate away from potential danger. The constant threat of danger makes watching a Texas race an exercise in breath-holding and nail-chewing. It’s not a condition I enjoy, but like NASCAR restrictor plate races, its popularity with the general fan base ensure that it will be a part of the Indycar series for the foreseeable future.

Two new factors will shape this year’s race, or I should say “races.” The 550 kilometer race has been separated into a pair of 275 kilometer events, each with its own winner and each paying half points and prize money. The grid for the first race will be set by traditional qualifying; the second by blind draw during the one hour inter-race break. Already nerve-wracking racing at Texas promises to be more so, compounded by the double-file restart procedure. I'm surprised the drivers aren't making a big stink about the rules here like they did at Indianapolis.

On to the handicapping. It was clear that everyone, from the loftiest media outlet to nearly every fan, wanted to pick someone from outside the Big Five Galactic Empire teams to win. It was also clear that no one wanted to lose any money on the race, so almost no one actually chose a non-Penske or Ganassi car to win the race. In fact, the Galactic Empire's Indy meltdown was surprising in its totality. One wonders if these five teams will show their usual invincibility, or if every air gun and fuel rig on pit road will simultaneously fail again. My picks:

1. Dario Franchitti - (Hey, I'm hedging my bets. Again.) Will be on a mission after Indy. Do not get in his way...

2. Tony Kanaan - He's Tony Kanaan. And he's tasted the podium this year. Won't be long before the KV car is in victory lane. Maybe that podium flavor will inspire team leadership to find a way to crash less often.

3. Graham Rahal - Momentum + Galactic Empire Equipment =He's coming to the front or will wreck trying.

4. Will Power - May get as close to an oval win as ever.

5. Marco Andretti - Most Likely to Succeed of the Andretti cars

6. JR Hildebrand - New fan favorite would be higher up, but a) his knee appears to be injured, though he'll still drive and b) I gotta be contrarian.

I'm looking forward to Saturday night's races and will come back with a full report.

Also in the near future: My Sports Car Racing Manifesto.

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