Commentary

Big test at Texas Motor Speedway

Updated: June 8, 2012, 12:06 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Texas Motor Speedway is the 1.5-mile elephant in the room this weekend.

For the first time since Dan Wheldon's death last October, the IndyCar Series will race on a high-banked oval Saturday night that is similar to the one at Las Vegas Motor Speedway where Wheldon lost his life.

Many of the things that led up to that tragic moment are different now, especially the numerous safety advancements of the new cars. But it doesn't change the underlying feeling by some people involved in this league -- they just don't want to be here.

They will say all the right things publicly, for the most part. But there is a growing attitude that large, high-speed ovals are the wrong direction for the IndyCar Series.

[+] EnlargeMarco Andretti, Venom Dallara
Robert Laberge/Getty ImagesMarco Andretti and James Hinchcliffe battle at Texas Motor Speedway in 2011. They return Saturday night with a new DW12 chassis and a body style aimed to improve driver safety.

And that's a shame. This place and this race has produced some of the most exciting on-track action in American open-wheel racing over the past 15 years, along with some of the largest crowds.

"You could make the argument that INDYCAR would not exist today if not for Texas Motor Speedway," TMS president Eddie Gossage said Thursday. "That may be a bit of an overstatement, but it's immeasurable what TMS did for the early days of the Indy Racing League."

Feelings are different now for some people in the IndyCar Series, and almost everyone involved in Saturday's Firestone 550 will approach the event with some trepidation.

"I'm not very comfortable with it," Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti said last week about going to TMS. "I'm just not comfortable with the whole situation. That's just the way it is. But I will go and do my absolute best to win the race."

Franchitti has been one of the biggest critics of high-speed oval racing, but he's wise enough to be diplomatic about it. Fellow racer Oriol Servia? Not so much.

Servia sent out a profanity-laced tweet about TMS last weekend and also took a verbal shot at Gossage. Servia later apologized, but the damage was done and his feelings were clear about the danger of racing here.

"It just sucks the passion right out of you," Gossage said of the Servia tweet. "It hurts me that some people don't have the respect and loyalty and appreciation for what this speedway has done for the series. And for some reason, I've become the villain here, even though a year ago I was on the committee that helped design this car."

Servia's tweet was the latest in a series of recent incidents that has stifled the momentum boost INDYCAR received from what was generally regarded as the best Indy 500 in many years.

Another Twitter faux pas came from the head man himself, INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard, who tweeted that one team owner was trying to get him fired.

[+] EnlargeWill Power
Robert Laberge/Getty ImagesPoints leader Will Power celebrated in Victory Lane the last time the IndyCar Series tackled Texas.

That happened before the street race in a return to the Belle Isle course in Detroit last weekend. Parts of the course were breaking up, causing a two-hour red flag and a race shortened to 60 laps. There wasn't a single pass for the lead.

"Real racers want to race, which we can do at Texas," A.J. Foyt said Thursday. "Not be at a place like Belle Isle, where you can be five seconds faster than the guy in front of you, but can't pass him."

Obviously, the Texas racing legend and longtime IndyCar team owner is in favor of continuing to race at TMS.

"If we don't race [at TMS], it will hurt the sport and the fans," Foyt said. "I think it would be terrible if this event goes away. I hope it doesn't. Some of those guys who want that just don't want to race these tracks because they aren't good at it.

"And frankly, I always felt safer racing on a big oval than I did on a road course. And I've seen plenty of people over the years get killed on road courses."

Some street courses profit from additional funding from city, county or state governments.

"If INDYCAR is going to rely on government-funded temporary courses, they will not succeed in the long run," Gossage said. "If the series is going to improve and grow, they need to be at facilities like this one in big markets. If they don't, they'll fail to be relevant."

But one of the issues for some drivers and league officials is safety. Some IndyCar drivers are critical of the catch-fencing design at tracks like Texas and Las Vegas. The support posts are inside the mesh fencing compared to some other tracks where the posts are outside the fencing.

Wheldon was killed in a 15-car accident when his car became airborne and his helmet hit one of the posts.

Dr. Dean Sicking, the University of Nebraska engineer who designed the SAFER barrier, has said repeatedly the positioning of the posts would not make a major difference in safety.

"All our engineers have told us the same thing," Gossage said.

Some IndyCar teams did extensive testing at TMS earlier this year to see how the new DW12 chassis would react on the super-fast oval.

This car has more body around it than the old model. The rear tires are almost completely enclosed, making it difficult for a trailing car to roll up on the tires of the car in front of it and reducing the chance of the car becoming airborne.

The cars will race at slower speeds here than at last season's finale at Vegas, and fewer cars will be in the field -- 25 compared to 34.

INDYCAR officials also are allowing the teams to make some aerodynamic adjustments on the cars in hopes of reducing pack racing (similar to restrictor-plate racing in NASCAR), so the field won't run together at the same speeds flat out.

"People didn't have the options to try to separate themselves," said driver Scott Dixon, a TMS winner in 2008. "But to have to lift [off the throttle], there are options now. It will be difficult to drive for a race stint, which I think is good."

The new car produced lots of up-front passing and side-by-side racing in the Indy 500 two weeks ago, so it will be interesting to see how it affects the racing at TMS.

Some of the TMS finishes have ranked among the most exciting in IndyCar racing history with cars coming to the checkered flag within inches of each other. But some drivers don't think open-wheel cars should race wheel-to-wheel continuously, only inches apart.

Four drivers in Saturday's race will be competing at TMS for the first time -- Simon Pagenaud, Katherine Legge, Josef Newgarden and former Formula One star Rubens Barrichello.

Pagenaud was one of the drivers who tested at TMS in April.

"It was really fast," Pagenaud said. "It made me think of a gladiator's arena."

That's the problem. Some of the drivers don't want to feel like gladiators in firesuits. Others enjoy the excitement that comes with a track like Texas.

"I realize it's dangerous to run three-wide there in packs," Marco Andretti said. "But I enjoy the tight racing, and most of all, it's fun for the fans."

Gossage believes the negative feelings about high-banked ovals remain a minority opinion in IndyCar, but it receives the most attention.

"They can't let three or four drivers dictate what they should do and where they should race," Gossage said. "I've had several drivers and team owners -- people who have been to Victory Lane a lot -- tell me not to pay attention to the negative talk. Most people love racing here, and they want to be here."

Time will tell, but TMS is under intense scrutiny this weekend. And what happens in the race could determine whether it remains an IndyCar venue in the future.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter