Michigan made for mayhem, Fontana featured frantic moments and Texas is usually best watched between your fingers. Those tracks have always made IndyCar “can’t look away” entertainment because it’s daring, breathtaking, close-quarter oval racing that often leaves the fans as frazzled as the drivers.
But let’s not kid each other. It’s the danger element that makes people watch and dancing with the devil that makes drivers take chances like they did Saturday night at Texas.
“It’s not about money, that’s for sure; it’s that feeling you can only get from driving a racecar very fast on the edge,” said Simon Pagenaud, the Verizon IndyCar series points leader who was in the middle of the four-car, 215mph scrum at the end of the Firestone 600. “It was exciting and it was a little scary at times, but it was fun.”
Pagenaud is a resplendent road racer still searching for his initial oval win – not somebody you picture running four wide into a corner at Texas. But he did an excellent job Saturday night, and his reaction after finishing fourth gave some insight into what he does and why he does it.
Just like James Hinchcliffe and Tony Kanaan, who sliced and diced with Graham Rahal and Pagenaud over the closing eight laps. They raced each other fair and fierce, lost their first victory of 2016 by a few feet and then hugged it out afterwards.
“I can’t thank Graham, Tony and Simon enough because we put ourselves in some pretty precarious situations and everybody came out OK,” said Hinchclife, a year removed from almost losing his life in an accident at Indy. “Nobody did anything stupid and everyone was respectful. I had a blast.”
A guy who almost bled to death because his suspension failed and sent him into the wall and out of racing for five months had a blast? Copy. He’s wired a little differently than you are, but chose to keep racing IndyCars because it’s his sustenance.
What almost killed him is also what makes him feel the most alive.
The expression on Kanaan’s face when he took off his helmet is all anyone needed to see. He was grinning like a madman, and after kissing his pregnant wife Lauren, he turned and said: “What a show. It’s always fun to race with guys who you can trust. I just feel bad for all the people that didn’t come back.”
Rahal, who only led from the middle of Turns 3-4 to the checkered flag, has now triumphed in two of the most insane oval races on record (Fontana last year being the other one).
“Hinch, TK and I were all winless and pushing as hard as possible, and it got a little crazy at times but we all came out in one piece,” said the second-generation racer who has been Honda’s go-to-guy the past two seasons with three victories against Chevrolet’s dominance.
Now, I never liked those old IRL races at Texas that featured eight or 10 cars lined up two-by-two, stuck together running wide open lap after lap. That was more like Russian Roulette than racing. But don’t confuse what you watched Saturday night with IRL pack racing.
“It’s not just flat-out, easy pack racing like what it used to be,” said Rahal, who went high, low, in the middle before finally shooting to the bottom to win. “You were lifting a heck of a lot in traffic and the way these cars draft just makes the racing awesome.”
The Mayor of Hinchtown, who raced Rahal as fair as possible to the checkered flag, agreed.
“You’ve got to pedal the car, it’s not just wide-open racing the whole stint like it was in days past,” he said. “This is why I wish we had more mile-and-a-half tracks on the schedule because it’s a lot of fun for us.”
No doubt it’s always more fun when your car is working, but that’s beside the point. Oval track racing is IndyCar’s heritage, and while it’s not nearly as popular with the paying customers as it was 20 years ago, it’s still a valuable part of what makes IndyCar the toughest championship on four wheels.
Texas once a year takes its toll on budgets and hearts. With Phoenix, Iowa, Indy, Pocono and now Gateway on the 2017 schedule, it’s a nice mix of ovals but, other than IMS, they all need some support shows to try and improve the fan experience.
The only downside to what we saw at Texas was the risk-versus-reward factor. It’s a crime that IndyCar drivers put on a performance like that and race their guts out to get paid peanuts while their NASCAR brethren all get rich “riding around” half the time.
But that’s racing reality these days, and nobody makes anybody drive an IndyCar – it’s their passion and their choice.
And if you didn’t like what you saw Saturday night and your heart wasn’t pounding, then it’s probably time to start working on that living will.