Last week’s NTT IndyCar Series testing at Texas Motor Speedway prompted some concerns by drivers about the potential quality of racing for the doubleheader on the 1.5-mile oval on May 1-2, related to the groove that sits a full lane up from the bottom of Turns 1 and 2.
The area, still noticeably stained by PJ1 Trackbite, an adhesive compound used in the fall of 2019 by the NASCAR Cup Series, was removed and washed thoroughly before last year’s IndyCar race in June. That 200-lap contest was already hampered enough as a one-day show with limited on-track running due to the impact of COVID-19, but drivers had to cope with a tricky high groove in Turns 1 and 2 that discouraged side-by-side battles. This bogged down the action — the event had just five lead changes between three drivers, along with 180 passes for position throughout the field of 23 starters.
IndyCar spent both Tuesday and Wednesday at TMS, with the second day emphasized as a more traditional test day that featured 17 drivers taking part. When asked about the grip level in the opening pair of corners, there was a near-unanimous consensus among the drivers.
“It’s a no-go zone,” said Graham Rahal, 2016 winner at TMS and driver of the No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda. “When they repaved the track and used the lime wash, it was slippery. You know, the first Cup race they raced here, a lot of guys crashing, a lot. I remember talking to Jimmie (Johnson) about it. It’s just very slippery. Everybody here at TMS does a great job trying to find ways to find grip. Unfortunately, the dark black stuff, from the data we got, is about 20 percent less grip than the bottom lane and a half, so it’s still going to be a no-go zone, unfortunately.”
Pato O’Ward, who ended up pacing the day overall at 222.25mph, was bold enough to try the lane during some single-car runs in the morning, but found it difficult to make his No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet stick.
“I tried opening up the radius into (Turn) 1 a couple of times and the car wasn’t very happy,” said O’Ward. “Usually, you can sort of feel it out whenever it might come in, but honestly, for what I have felt up until now, it’s not going to grip up. We need that to grip up in order for us to have a good race. The other thing that might help racing is see how the tire deg [degradation] is going to be. (Wednesday’s) a little funky because there’s so much downforce. It’s very windy, but there is so much more downforce because it’s cold, and we’re all flat around the place and it usually isn’t easy flat. You have to kind of take a leap of faith and not everybody does it in qualifying.
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“I think last year, Josef (Newgarden) was the only one that did it. We’re all in a situation where we’re just getting all this extra grip that I don’t think it’ll be here on race weekend — it might, but I feel like in that area, it might make the racing very difficult if we don’t have a second lane. We truly need that in order for us to either have chances to pass and (put on) a good show.”
O’Ward added that his attempt to push into the stained lane was only with the right-side tires.
“I don’t know how else to say it, but I haven’t had the cojones to go four wheels on the black,” said O’Ward. “… Any time you try and get just a little bit of clean air on your wings behind someone, you lose like 10 car (lengths) because you just plow through. It’s obviously very green up there. It needs more rubber. The problem is we don’t know if it’ll rubber in. We’re just going to have to see how everything plays out and if people start using that second row.”
However, there is some optimism this time around with an improved aero configuration, which RACER understands to be more than 150 pounds of downforce versus last year’s package at TMS. Although Newgarden, a two-time IndyCar champion and 2019 winner at Texas, couldn’t give an exact number, he confessed it is “within a couple hundred pounds.”
“I think it’s possible to open up that lane, more so now with the aero configuration that we’re going to be running or potentially running for the race weekend,” said Newgarden, driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet. “It’s a bit more downforce, it’s more consistent, it seems like you can follow a lot closer. If that’s the case, people will be more open to driving up into the lane. I think at the moment it’s not there. We need people to go up there and clean off the track and start laying down rubber. So I think the likelihood of using it is higher, but I think the reluctance of using it is still there at the moment.”
Will Power, a two-time winner at TMS, had another suggestion.
“If you did a session, let’s say, 20 minutes leading into the final practice of the race weekend and everyone gets a set of tires and they can only run the second lane, and that segued into final practice, then you get cars running both lanes,” said the driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Chevrolet.
“As they get to someone, they just wouldn’t stall out. They’d go up there. So I think that would almost fix the problem. We’ve added downforce, the cars are easier and more stuck. You can even do a short line at the moment when you’re running by yourself, but if you can’t go to another lane, how can you ever pass?”
It has been an uphill climb for TMS since undergoing a reconfiguration and repave in 2017 to aid the track’s drainage issues. The renovation reprofiled Turns 1 and 2 widened from 60 feet to 80 feet, and banking in that section decreased from 24 to 20 degrees.
Rahal acknowledged the track’s continued efforts to improve the racing for both the Genesys 300 and XPEL 375.
“If the downforce levels are correct and the tire combination is correct and you have kind of an evening race on both days — Sunday not so much but on Saturday — that gives you an opportunity for the track to cool down and be good conditions to let you go race anyway,” said Rahal. “I think we’ll be able to put on a better show than what we had the last year or the time before that. But we have to learn.
“Everyone at TMS is responding. I’m sure when they repaved the track, they thought it was going to be the perfect combination and it wasn’t. They know that, they’ve acknowledged that, and I think everybody here has done a great job to try to adjust to that and make it racy again and I think it’s getting closer.”