By A.J. Foyt
The Firestone 550 at Texas Motor Speedway proved an important point for the IndyCar Series. Indy cars don’t have to give up their oval track heritage for the sake of safety.
After the tragedy in Las Vegas last year, people—media, drivers (even one NASCAR champion), and some fans--were questioning whether Indy cars should run on ovals. I took exception to it then and said as much in this newspaper. Well, they backed off that but continued to say quietly we shouldn’t be racing at high-banked tracks like Texas Motor Speedway.
I disagreed with that feeling too. We need to be at tracks where the drivers can race! I wish I was young enough to still race because Texas was the kind of track I loved to race on—fast with plenty of room to pass.
There was a lot of concern among the drivers about the pack racing on the 1.5-mile tracks and the IndyCar tech officials listened hard and came up with a different aero package. It took away some of the downforce (as much as 400 lbs.) so the drivers could not drive flat-footed all the way around the track. They would actually have to lift off the throttle and drive the cars—the way it used to be when I was driving.
The cars weren’t as secure and there were a lot of complaints from drivers about the handling over the radios. Cars were either loose (nervous in the rear) or pushing (the front of the car won’t turn and the car drifts towards the wall).
Gone were the 15-20 car packs. There were crashes – some surprising ones like the single car incident of Scott Dixon who touched the track apron and had the back end snap on him. But the cars were so sensitive to changes, either in the tire wear, sudden moves by other cars, or the line you took, that the drivers really had to be on their toes for the whole race.
Be careful what you wish for.
My driver Mike Conway struggled with our car’s handling at the beginning of practice on Friday. We also had a small pit lane fire when a fuel hose popped out of its connector while our fueler Rodney Klausmeyer was fueling the car. Mike didn’t get hurt—in fact he finished running practice but Rodney suffered 2nd degree burns to his right hand. He won’t be fueling for a while but he’s Texas tough. He still worked around the pits with his good hand.We made a change in the shock settings and it was a different car for Mike in qualifying. He qualified eighth in the ABC Supply car, so I thought the bad stuff was behind us. That was the best qualifying run for the No. 14 at Texas in a long time.
We knew we’d have to start 18th. We were penalized 10 spots on the grid because we changed our Honda engine before it reached its 1850-mile rotation limit. That is a new rule this year; it’s meant to discourage teams from changing their engines too frequently. By controlling engine changes, IndyCar is trying to contain costs for the teams and the engine manufacturers.
We were close to our mileage limit and wanted to put in a fresh engine at the shop instead of after qualifying at the race track. The engine that we put in was the one we ran in the 500 where it performed really well. After running second in the final practice on Friday night, we were thinking a top five was definitely within our reach.
On Friday, I was asked by Firestone to be the grand marshal of the race and since they were nice enough to ask, I accepted. My command, ‘Boys and girls, start your engines’ went over well with the crowd.
Too bad the car didn’t handle as well on Saturday as it did on Friday night. It was clear from the start of the Firestone 550 that we had a long night ahead of us. Instead of going forward, Mike dropped back to 20th. By the time of our first pit stop, he was up to 17th. After the stop he was 11th thanks to our good stop and some bad stops by others. I started feeling like maybe we’d pull it out after all because we were able to add more front wing to fight the push he had.
Well we were making changes all night long and nothing was working—including the weight jacker which should have helped him adjust the crossweight in the car to improve the handling. We put wing in and then we took wing out. Mike finished 16th four laps down. He would have been 14th but the fuel alarm lit up, making him think he was out of fuel so he pitted under green when he didn’t have to. It was a false alarm. I guess it’s better to have it happen in a race when you’re running 14th instead of fourth.
After the race, we found that a strap on the undertray was broken and we think that may have played a part in the car’s poor handling.
Justin Wilson won the race after passing Graham Rahal who brushed the wall while leading with two laps to go. Rahal hung on for second.
This race was not quite as exciting as the ones in the past but the drivers seemed to like it because they felt they had more control. I think it was good because it separates the men from the boys. If the car is handling, you can run fast and if it’s not, you’ll be in the back. At least you no longer have people up there that don’t belong because now the cars aren’t so easy to drive.
There’s a lot of speculation about IndyCar’s future at Texas Motor Speedway. I think we need to be there and I hope we are there next year. I know there’s a street race in my hometown of Houston but I really don’t want us to lose the race at Texas Motor Speedway because of another street race (even if we’ve had our best finishes on them in recent years).
So there are still some questions as we leave Texas but I sure hope that everyone involved can get it worked out so we’ll be back again next year.