Emotions high as Texas' IndyCar future remains unsettled
FORT WORTH, Texas -- High atop the broadcast center, behind Victory Lane at Texas Motor Speedway, was a banner that sent several strong messages to INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard.
There was a tremendous amount of uncertainty heading into last Saturday's Firestone 550 at Texas Motor Speedway, and with good reason. It was the first time the series had competed at a 1.5-mile oval since Dan Wheldon was killed in a 15-car crash on a similar-shaped track at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in October 2011.
Efforts were made to eliminate "pack racing" with the new Dallara DW12 chassis, putting more control into the driver's hands rather than a race car. And those efforts worked well in a highly competitive race with 10 lead changes and Justin Wilson winning on an oval for the first time in his IndyCar career.
But was it enough to keep Texas Motor Speedway on the IndyCar schedule?
It's hard to believe that in a series that desperately needs more oval races that the most successful oval outside of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway may be sliced from the slate. But that is a real possibility, according to Bernard and Texas Motor Speedway President and General Manager Eddie Gossage.
Once considered mutual admirers of each other's work, the two are at a loggerhead with both admitting they have not talked to each other about keeping Texas on the IndyCar schedule beyond last Saturday.
"I haven't talked to Randy Bernard in some time, so you have to ask him," Gossage told SI.com. "I'm not going to speak for him but we've been racing here 23 races now -- more than anybody in this series since 1997, including the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Our safety record here is better than most of the other speedways in the sport, including the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I think there are a lot of reasons and a lot of emotions, and understandably so after losing Dan Wheldon. Hopefully tonight puts that to rest."
Some of the most dramatic races in the history of this series have been held on the 1.5-mile, high-banked track at Texas. The first IndyCar contest in 1997 drew an announced attendance of 129,000. After that, crowds ranged from a high of 107,000 fans before settling into the 60,000-80,000 range. The only race on the schedule that draws larger crowds is the Indianapolis 500 with its annual throng of 350,000 every Memorial Day Sunday.
So why would IndyCar want to leave a venue that is well-supported by the fans?
"That's our question," Gossage said. "You'd have to ask the guys who raise the question. We don't understand. It's an absolute puzzle to us and that is why we are so frustrated by it."
Bernard met with a group of reporters before Saturday night's race and indicated that he wanted to wait until after the Firestone 550 before talking to Gossage.
"Quite honestly, I've made it a point to say we want to make sure we focus on this event -- and we haven't started any meaningful negotiations going forward until after this event," Bernard said. "I wanted to keep everyone on this race right now.
"I've read in the paper it's the No. 2 event in attendance on the IndyCar Series. Now if it were the No. 2 revenue-making event in the IndyCar Series, maybe? Yes, we want to come back if it is financially worthwhile. I would hope we could make it work."
With so much controversy between Gossage and INDYCAR heading into the weekend, Gossage believes it negatively impacted ticket sales.
"It was fairly impactful," Gossage said. "This crowd was down from last year. It was still spectacular but you want to be going the other way. You want to be growing this thing and it ought to be growing. With the talent level of these drivers and the quality of these races -- the IndyCar races at Texas -- have always been the best there is. Fans want to come and be entertained. They don't want to hear about all kinds of politics and business and stuff like that. They want to come here and enjoy the racing."
Gossage also understands why some of the drivers were nervous before competing at Texas but pointed out that the nature of racing at his track was far different than Vegas. For one, the asphalt surface at Texas has aged, which creates a different grip level and does not allow drivers to go three-wide all the way around the track. Las Vegas Motor Speedway has much newer asphalt after a repaving job and the grip level is much higher, which allowed cars to drive virtually anywhere on the track in last October's race.
"I can understand that because it is certainly an emotional thing," Gossage said. "It's a different kind of racing here than Las Vegas. It was a different number of drivers and the disparity in experience last year in Vegas between drivers. All kinds of things. I hope everybody now moves on and we'll see if we can do something together. If we can, great. If we can't, that's a shame."
And those sentiments are echoed by some of IndyCar's top team owners and drivers, including Roger Penske and Ryan Briscoe.
"I've never been opposed to one and a half mile racing," Briscoe said. "I just think we need to get the formula right, and pack racing is wrong in these cars. I would definitely come back here with this package. It's tough. Cars hit the walls, and I don't know about other safety issues that could be improved, but the big thing is getting away from pack racing. I thought the racing was awesome."
Second-place finisher Graham Rahal also said he wouldn't be opposed to coming back to TMS.
"If it's like tonight, absolutely," Rahal said. "Why not? We put on a great show. You know, I don't like pack racing. Just as a driver you feel like you can't control your own destiny when you're pack racing, and here you definitely had to drive the thing tonight. And it's the first time on a mile and a half other than maybe Homestead in 2010 that I've really felt like the driver can make a difference.."
And the race winner applauded the rules that allowed the drivers to race, not just hang on to the pack.
"We came here with a great package, and it allowed for people to come and go throughout the race," Wilson said. "We weren't just glued to the racetrack and flat out waiting for something to happen. You're actually racing each other. It's the most fun I've had on an oval. Obviously I won, so I'm going to feel a bit biased towards it. But I think it was a great package.
"This car is very different. It goes back to earlier, how a lot of drivers were nervous just because they didn't know what was going to happen and how it was going to race. You've got to change the driving style. This car reacts different. It's a little bit more of a handful, which I think is good because it makes the racing more interesting. I thought it was fantastic. People were nervous, but as soon as the cars went on track, everyone calmed down."
There are other factors that may be influencing Bernard's decision on whether to drop Texas from the schedule. Beginning next year, the Shell Houston Grand Prix will be held in Reliance Park on a temporary street course. And the road course that is being built in Austin, Texas, for a Formula One race, is hoping to lure the IndyCar Series to its new road course. Gossage believes both cities fall under his "market" and he's opposed to sharing Texas with any other promoters.
But are two street races in Texas justification to knock the most successful oval other than the Indianapolis Motor Speedway off the schedule?
"I think we want input from everyone -- team owners, drivers, sponsors, fans and our partners," Bernard said. "I want to hear what their opinion is after tonight, but I always want to see how the schedule is laid out, too. It has to make sense. The financial side, from my standpoint, is the biggest. There is a tremendous amount of interest from Austin to have a race. We are going to Houston. We just need to focus on what is in the best interest of IndyCar in terms of competition, entertainment and financial."
From listening to the dialogue, it's easy to conclude that the 2013 IndyCar schedule may not have Texas Motor Speedway on it. But Gossage remains hopeful.
"We're going to make a business decision and try to do what is right," Gossage said. "But we need the drivers to fully support it and we need IndyCar to fully support it, and hopefully they will."
But will it be good enough to guarantee IndyCar's return to TMS for future races? This is a track that helped make IndyCar one of the most compelling series in all of racing, so it would be a great injustice to fans that have supported this race if it were not to continue.