The prospect of a one-day show is unusual – though not completely unprecedented – in modern IndyCar. But while IndyCar’s drivers make a long-awaited competitive return to their cockpits this weekend at Texas after a pandemic-lengthened off-season, they also head into some unfamiliar territory.
Some rookies haven’t visited an oval before, never mind one that carries the sting in the tail that Texas can. Others have limited experience with the new aeroscreens. Then there are those still getting to know new engineers.
“It’s the first time I’ll have been there,” said Jack Harvey, whose Meyer Shank Racing team is also heading into the first year of a technical alignment with Andretti Autosport.
“It’s the first time the team will have been there. It’s going to be the first time that Andretti Autosport has been there with the canopy and the halo. I mean, you look at it that way, there’s certainly a lot of unknowns, a lot of new things.
“My personal approach is just to try and be a sponge in so many ways. I just want to try to absorb as much information and knowledge as I can quickly to [be able to] leave the weekend and feel we’ve had a good weekend. I don’t know what that looks like in terms of a result yet… Trying to balance being realistic with that hunger and that desire just to get the season off to a great start.”
Toward the other end of the experience scale, Scott Dixon has seen an array of different styles of race play out at Texas, and expects the mandated 35-lap tire limit to be a curveball.
“It’s definitely going to be interesting to see how that plays out,” said the Ganassi star. “We’ll put a lot of emphasis on pit stops, in-laps. Could create other issues… A lot of pressure on the pit crew guys.
“Last year we ran 65 laps on a stint; this year we’re limited now to 35, half-tanks in the car. It’s going to be a bit crazy in knowing what you should try to do in that short amount of time.
“You just have to go in with the positive mindset. Yes, I think a team like ours that has a lot of resources, running in different configurations, might have a slight advantage. But honestly, the competition now in the series is through the roof. It’s going to be tough in any format.”
There’s an additional change in pace for Ganassi this year with the addition of a third car for Marcus Ericsson, who moves across from what’s now Arrow McLaren SP. It will be the first time since 2017 that CGR has run more than two cars, and marks a belated start to Ericsson’s relationship with his new team after a few dry runs in the virtual world.
“I feel happy and confident in myself that I’ve done everything to be prepared as possible to start the season now,” said the Swede. “I feel really good with the team. I think we’ve done all the preparations possible. We are more than ready to start the season.
“The iRacing Series has been great for me to get that relationship started with my engineer, Brad Goldberg, and my spotter Bruce [Kempton]. We’ve already started working in a racing environment. It feels like we definitely have started that process, so we can continue that now when we get to the racetrack for real. That’s been really good and really useful.”
There’s even new ground to be explored for Tony Kanaan, who starts his now-four-race farewell tour with A.J. Foyt Racing on Saturday night. Texas itself doesn’t hold many surprises for the Brazilian, who is a previous winner there, but this weekend will mark the first time he’s sampled the aeroscreens.
“I have not been in the car,” he said. “ I didn’t even sit in the car in the shop. My car is not ready yet with the windscreen. I think I’m going to go to the shop tomorrow and try.”
His sim races have given him some sense of what to expect from the aeroscreen in terms of visibility, and racing in the privacy of his own home was also a preview of sorts for the sensation of lining up in front of empty grandstands this weekend. While he expects it to be strange, he also believes it might instill the paddock with a greater appreciation for what fans bring to the sport.
“I don’t know how I’m going to feel because I haven’t witnessed a racetrack with no fans, to be honest,” he said.
“I don’t recall in my career ever that I show up to a race [where there] wasn’t a single person asking for an autograph. It’s going to be like a private event.
“That is the safest thing to do for our first race [but] it will be no sport if we keep doing this. Thank God — I know it’s not going to happen, but no sport will survive without fans. It will be a different vibe.
“Throughout my entire life, not just this situation specifically, I always try to look at the positive things. Out of a negative or bad situation, there is always something you can [do to] make the most out of it. We should be happy that we’re back. We should be happy that life is becoming whatever that normal is going to be. But also I think in hindsight, a lot of us, not saying me, but we will actually value the fans a lot more once we come out of Texas where we had to race with empty stands. Think about the positive side. Once [fans are] allowed to come in, it will be even better than it was before.”