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Opinion
IndyCar Laguna Seca

Has IndyCar's Texas loss come at the right time?

OPINION: For the first time since 1996, IndyCar will not race in Texas. But with the return of racing at the Milwaukee Mile, the impact of its loss from the schedule is somewhat softened

Will Power, Team Penske Chevrolet

The writing had been on the wall for several years, but the inevitable separation of the IndyCar Series and Texas Motor Speedway finally came with the arrival of the 2024 schedule. A relationship that began in 1997, the two transitioned through nearly every phase possible in the best and worst ways. The reality, though, is that things have been turbulent for an extended amount of time and both parties are at fault for its failure.

In many ways, it’s fitting how everything started – with four-time Indianapolis 500 winner and Texas native AJ Foyt backhanding Arie Luyendyk in Victory Lane after the inaugural event in 1997. Factor in timing and scoring issues that delayed final results until the next day and it also signalled the end of the United States Auto Club’s involvement in the championship.

When the series needed to bolster its schedule in the early days and an ideal market to crown a champion, the 1.5-mile superspeedway stepped up and hosted races in summer and fall from 1998 to 2004. Breath-taking wheel-to-wheel battles and dramatic finishes were a common theme.

At one point, it owned the second-closest finish in Indycar history when Sam Hornish Jr edged out Helio Castroneves by 0.0096 seconds in a 2002 thriller. However, even that finish took a back seat when Graham Rahal pulled the upset on James Hinchcliffe’s dominant drive in 2016 to win by 0.0080s, which ranks as the closest win in the track’s history and fifth all-time.

The shine of aluminium grandstands under the traditional Saturday night shootouts in summer became more prominent as the crowd size trickled down in the late-2000s, but in many ways 2016 signalled the beginning of the end. Rahal’s narrow victory put solace on an unprecedented situation when rain left the track surface with drying issues, which suspended the race after 72 laps on 11 June, only to return to finish out the remainder on 27 August.

What followed as a result of the persistent issues was a repave, reconstruction and reconfiguration. A symmetrical 24-degree banking in all four corners gave way to alteration, with Turn 1 and 2 decreased to 20 degrees and widened from 60 feet to 80 feet. An expansive French drainage system was also installed on the frontstretch and backstretch of the track. Without an aged racing surface, the multiple lanes become non-existent in the events that followed, which was made increasingly more difficult with NASCAR’s track adhesive also not meshing with IndyCar’s package.

It was to Texas that IndyCar turned to start its beleaguered 2020 season

It was to Texas that IndyCar turned to start its beleaguered 2020 season

Photo by: Chris Owens

Even with all of those struggles, though, when the coronavirus pandemic happened in 2020 and IndyCar needed a place to jumpstart its delayed season, it turned to Texas for its behind-closed-doors race. Other events were more fortunate, with fans, albeit in limited numbers at specific venues, able to attend as the year went on.

A stranglehold of single-file racing continued until IndyCar gave way to Will Power’s long-standing idea of a special session – consisting of only seven drivers – with extra tyres for the sole purpose of working the upper lanes in 2022. Track evolution followed for the race as the much-maligned high lane became usable, with Josef Newgarden utilising it to make the winning move on Team Penske team-mate Scott McLaughlin on the last lap. It was the only race that featured a winning pass on the final lap all season, too.

This past season, the Texas on-track product showed flashes of its glory days before an untimely caution stunted what would have undoubtedly been a wild finish, and left Newgarden to coast to victory for a second consecutive year. So, even with an uptick in the quality of racing, why did it come to this?

In this case, it came down to clash of dates, with rumblings of NASCAR eager to move off its September date, where fans sat in blistering heat reaching 100F, and to early April, the slot that IndyCar held this year. Simply put, the television money that TMS receives in return from NASCAR gives them priority. And with the number of NASCAR events at TMS reduced from two to one after 2022, flexibility is a requirement at this point on the track’s part.

Next year’s return of the historic Milwaukee Mile to the schedule for the first time since 2015 made it easier to drop Texas

Any efforts for IndyCar and TMS to reach an agreement on a new date were also impacted by the Summer Olympics, which are being broadcast by NBC Sports – the television partner for both IndyCar and NASCAR.

Next year’s return of the historic Milwaukee Mile to the schedule for the first time since 2015 made it easier to drop Texas, with the addition of the oval returning in the form of a double-header on Labor Day weekend – a federal holiday in the United States to honour and recognise the American labour movement, which is celebrated on the first Monday in September.

Honestly, though, the turbulent history between TMS and IndyCar reached a point where a reset is best for all involved.

“There's been fabulous racing there,” says Mark Miles, president and CEO of Penske Entertainment. “That sort of north Texas market is very important to IndyCar. We'll go back to work as we have some of the other building blocks like our own media partner in place for 2025.”

Both IndyCar and the Texas Motor Speedway hope the split is temporary

Both IndyCar and the Texas Motor Speedway hope the split is temporary

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

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