Castroneves & Co. brace for Texas
FORT WORTH, Texas -- Measuring 1.5 miles, Texas Motor Speedway may not be the longest oval track in the Verizon IndyCar Series. It's not the fastest either.
But it's definitely the biggest and the baddest.
And this year, there's more of it. The Firestone Indy 600 has been extended by 20 laps to a total of 248, corresponding to roughly 600 kilometers.
Six hundred "kays" is less than 500 miles (372), but to a man, Indy car drivers cite Texas as the most daunting speedway they will experience all year. Steep banking, a relatively short lap time and frequent wheel-to-wheel action make TMS Indy car racing's toughest track to tame.
These days, Texas is the only high-banked intermediate oval on the IndyCar schedule, and the DW12 spec chassis introduced two years ago was assigned an extremely low downforce setup by INDYCAR in an effort to prevent the pack racing that was common on 1.5-mile tracks with the previous model car.
The aero package mandated for Texas is a hybrid of the one used on longer tracks like Indianapolis, Pocono and Auto Club Speedway and short ovals such as Milwaukee and Iowa. The previous two years saw dominant performances by one driver -- Justin Wilson with Dale Coyne Racing in 2012 and Team Penske's Helio Castroneves in 2013.
Interestingly, both winning cars were found to have minor aerodynamic illegalities that resulted in penalties.
Castroneves is the active leader with four victories at Texas since 2002, and he is coming off a strong performance in Detroit, where he earned one pole position and finished fifth and first in the twin races to pull himself into second place in the IndyCar championship standings behind teammate Will Power.
"Every time you win a race multiple times, it's your favorite race," exclaimed Castroneves. "Texas is a place that seems to be good to us.
"They keep changing a little bit of the rules and you kind of keep readapting yourself, but it's always good to race in Texas."
Castroneves led 132 of 228 laps last year, and he expressed satisfaction that INDYCAR has loosened the aero restrictions on teams for the Texas race, allowing them to experiment with strakes and shutters to find a configuration that could produce up to 300 extra pounds of downforce.
Most drivers believe that INDYCAR went slightly too far in the downforce reduction the past couple of years. With the cars sliding around and Firestone tires designed to "go off" and wear quickly over the course of a run, pack racing was certainly a thing of the past, but in its place came a more strung-out field than TMS fans had grown accustomed to. Twenty-five previous races at Texas produced a margin of victory of less than one second, including eight being decided by less than one-tenth of a second.
Castroneves' margin of victory in 2013 was 4.692 seconds.
"When they have a lot of downforce, anybody could drive," Castroneves said. "But now they keep making the car difficult, and now you've got to pick your lane. That's where you separate the people that are able to drive those types of scenarios.
"I think as a team we are able to set up the car better that way, and it shows a big difference."
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Power, who scored his first oval race win in 2011 in a half-length race that was part of a Texas twin bill, admitted that Castroneves had the competition covered a year ago.
"My teammate absolutely destroyed the field last year," Power said. "That's just confidence on ovals."
While Castroneves found the going easy last year, many drivers did not. While they're not calling for a return to the dangerous pack racing that characterized IRL-sanctioned races at Texas from 1997 to roughly 2006, some would like to have the cars feel more stable than they have recently.
"We are driving these cars on the ragged edge at this place in particular," said Marco Andretti. "The rate of tire falloff, because of aerodynamic grip, is pretty great here. I was watching my onboard camera from this place, and we earned our money last year. I had a race-winning car last year, and it looked terrible. I was backing into the corners, lifting way early.
"I guess we can leave it up to the fans," Andretti added. "I know they might want to see pack racing, but I know we don't want that as drivers. Somewhere in between is a happy medium, and that is what we are going for. Not a drastic change -- just a little change."
Power, who leads Castroneves in the IndyCar championship by 19 points, was another driver who warned against making the cars too easy to drive.
"As long as it's not pack racing, it's fine," he said. "As soon as you start pack racing, you can have your grandma running on your outside rear. It takes all the talent away and creates this dangerous situation of cars all packed up.
"If they put it all back in the drivers' hands and the good drivers are at the front where they should be and the [bad drivers] are at the back, it's fine."
Graham Rahal, who nearly won the 2012 Texas race only to brush the wall in the closing laps to hand the victory to Wilson, believes that the changes made to the aero package for 2014 will reinvigorate the racing.
"It's obviously a great racetrack; it's just difficult, particularly with the aero and tire combination these days," said the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing pilot. "We slide around a lot here, and that's a good thing. You don't necessarily want to go to tracks that are 'easy.'
"This used to be one of those, but nowadays you come here and there is a lot to be learned."