Commentary

High banks, high drama at Texas

Updated: June 8, 2012, 7:34 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Some people involved in the IndyCar Series think the best thing for the league is to abandon all high-banked, high-speed ovals.

They are 100 percent wrong.

Let me put this as simply and directly as I possibly can: If the IndyCar Series decides not to race at tracks such as Texas Motor Speedway, the league is doomed. It becomes nothing more than a niche sport with one major event -- the Indy 500. It heads down the same path of destruction than led to the ruination of CART/Champ Car -- more and more street and road courses, more foreign events, fewer American drivers and less media attention.

Texas Motor Speedway saved this series. While American open-wheel racing did everything it could to destroy itself with a contentious 12-year split into two leagues, the events at TMS were shining examples of just how good this type of racing can be.

Saturday night's Firestone 550 probably will be one of the most exciting races of the year in IndyCar. In fact, it likely will be one of the most exciting races in any series.

[+] EnlargeHelio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan
Donald Miralle/Getty Images for Texas Motor SpeedwayIndyCar drivers Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan return to super-fast Texas Motor Speedway with a new car chassis designed with increased safety in mind.

It's breathtaking, side-by-side action with lots of passing that often has produced a photo finish. Sam Hornish Jr. beating Helio Castroneves by 0.0096 of a second in 2002 is just one example.

For many years, TMS brought out the biggest crowds in American open-wheel racing outside of the Indy 500. While the Indy Racing League was struggling to survive, more than 90,000 people were coming to TMS.

The events were so successful that the IRL had two races a year at Texas from 1998 through 2004. And it still has solid attendance. A crowd of more than 60,000 is expected Saturday night.

But some people in the series don't want to be here. Dario Franchitti, who won the Indy 500 two weeks ago, has been one of the biggest critics, saying he was uncomfortable with racing at Texas. Driver Oriol Servia sent out a profanity-laced tweet about TMS last weekend. Some IndyCar reporters have written stories about eliminating these type of tracks from the schedule. And the IndyCar Series already removed Las Vegas after last season's tragic accident that took Dan Wheldon's life.

It absolutely dumbfounds me that a racing league based on the biggest, fastest and most famous oval track in the world -- the Indianapolis Motor Speedway -- is talking about eliminating other big oval tracks.

Yes, I know. Indy isn't like Texas or Las Vegas. Indy is a giant, relatively flat rectangle. But last time I checked, no driver has lost his life at TMS. Thirty-nine drivers have lost their lives at Indy. So arguably, Indy is the most dangerous track.

But no one talks about that. Indy is hallowed ground, and deservedly so. It also is enormously dangerous.

However, some drivers, along with some league officials and media members, believe Indy cars don't belong on high-speed ovals because they feel it's too dangerous. Racing is dangerous, but making a track such as this one a scapegoat isn't the answer. Changing the circumstances of how the cars race on these tracks in the answer.

All this discussion about leaving high-banked ovals escalated after Wheldon's death in October during the season finale at Las Vegas, a high-banked, 1.5-mile oval almost identical to TMS.

Many of the things that led to that tragic moment won't be in play for this race. The Vegas event had too many cars (34) at speeds too fast with too many inexperienced drivers who had no business racing on a high-speed oval.

That race also had a car that wasn't as safe as the one the drivers will sit in Saturday night. The new DW12 chassis (named in Wheldon's honor for his input in testing the car last year) was designed with enhanced safety in mind. It includes a larger cockpit and body covering around the rear wheels to keep a car from rolling up on the car in front of it and becoming airborne.

Some of the biggest critics, including Franchitti, were pleased after qualifying and practice Friday with the aero changes that make the new car harder to drive here, which should reduce pack racing.

Whether that's enough for them to want to return is hard to say. The critics will bring up the fact that two drivers -- Kenny Brack and Davey Hamilton -- suffered serious injuries in accidents at TMS. That's two drivers in 23 IndyCar events at Texas.

Let's go back and look at the past 23 Indy 500s. Three drivers have lost their lives at Indy over that span -- Jovy Marcelo in 1993, Scott Brayton in 1996 and Tony Renna during a test session in 2003.

I can't begin to list all the serious injuries at Indy over that span, but here are a few of note: Mark Dismore in 1991 (sidelined for a year), Nelson Piquet in 1992 (leg injuries that took a year to recover), Stan Fox in 1995 (career-ending head injuries on the opening lap) and Mike Conway in 2010 (back and leg injuries).

But the critics never complain about the dangers of Indy. That's sacrilege. They do complain vigorously about TMS because it lends itself to pack racing at high speeds, where cars can't get away from each other. That type of racing probably will be reduced this year because of aerodynamic changes made to the new car.

"We are on a mission to take right steps toward making it safer here and keep cars from running on top of each other,'' said driver Ryan Briscoe, who won at TMS in 2010. "It's good to see all the drivers working together to improve the safety."

The naysayers also will bring up the catch-fence design at TMS. The support posts are inside the cable-mesh fencing, the same design used by Speedway Motorsports Inc. at TMS's sister track Las Vegas. Wheldon was killed after his car became airborne and his helmet struck a support post.

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 significant difference in safety.

The long-range solution could be a super-strong, extra-thick Plexiglas that wouldn't require support posts. Another solution could be enclosed cockpits, something unlimited hydroplane racing implemented 20 years ago.

In the end, we all want the same thing. We want the IndyCar Series to thrive and enjoy increased success.

That won't happen if the league gives up on at track like Texas Motor Speedway.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter