IRL: Season to finish in Texas

No better place to finish season than Texas FORT WORTH, Texas, Thursday, Oct. 2, 2003 -- There have been 36 IRL IndyCarTM Series races with a margin of victory of less than a second. That's an impressive stat on its own until you realize that ...

No better place to finish season than Texas

FORT WORTH, Texas, Thursday, Oct. 2, 2003 -- There have been 36 IRL IndyCarTM Series races with a margin of victory of less than a second. That's an impressive stat on its own until you realize that eight of those finishes, including five of the 10 closest, have been at Texas Motor Speedway.

In the Chevy 500 in September 2002, Sam Hornish Jr. held off Helio Castroneves to win the race by a mere .0096 of a second, the second-closest finish in IRL IndyCar Series history.

That's an incredibly small sliver of time.

Consider that a Nolan Ryan fastball takes .38 of a second to cross the plate, and a serve from U.S. Open tennis champion Andy Roddick takes .6 of a second to reach his opponent's racquet.

"I've never seen anything like it in all my years in motorsports," said Eddie Gossage, Texas Motor Speedway executive vice president and general manager. "The IndyCar Series was made for Texas Motor Speedway. You can't sit down; it's just too exciting. And if you blink, you might just miss the finish."

Expect another exciting finish at Texas as the closest championship chase in motorsports comes to a climax Oct. 12 at the Chevy 500 on the 1.5-mile oval. Five drivers remain in contention for the title, with Castroneves and Scott Dixon tied atop the standings at 467 points.

So, what is this magical combination that has produced so many 'hold your breath' finishes? Well, barring "magic" as an actual explanation, there are several theories.

"It's a combination of a lot of things," said Brian Barnhart, senior vice president of racing operations for the IRL. "Much of it has happened from a car formula standpoint and is a direct result of hard work by (IRL Senior Technical Director) Phil Casey and (IRL Technical Consultant) Les Mactaggart in developing the aero formula."

"It has produced a level playing field for the participants, which has always been one of the goals of the IRL. They've come up come up with a really great aero and downforce package, which makes for competitive racing everywhere, including Texas."

The aero package is conducive to good racing at all tracks, but Texas in particular, Casey said.

"The downforce, the horsepower of the engines and the smoothness of a track like Texas are the perfect combination for good racing," Casey said. "We're very proud of the product. It's enjoyable to watch, and it makes for unbelievable racing and finishes."

"We have changed the aero package from last year, giving us a little more flexibility in increasing or decreasing the amount of downforce for each track where we run. Although it's always been competitive at Texas, with an increased wing angle this season and the ability to adjust the flaps more readily we have been able to hit the right combinations for each track. The drivers are able to go side-by-side the way they do because they will stick to the track -- they're very stable."

In addition to the cars, Barnhart also believes practice makes perfect.

"We have raced at Texas 12 times, twice a year since 1998," Barnhart said. "Because of that, the drivers have more experience there -- a better handle on how to get around the track and race the way they do."

"It's a combination of that experience, the package within the league, the fact that we've raced there more than anywhere else, and the design of the track gives our drivers multiple options where to put the car -- multiple grooves, not any one line to get around the place. It makes for a very exciting and competitive event."

Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Jr., winner of the Bombardier 500 in June at Texas, thinks the track's design produces the great racing.

"Everyone is always asking, 'Why is the racing so great at Texas Motor Speedway?' and I think the answer to that question lies in the design of the racetrack," Unser said. "Specifically, the banking at Texas makes the racing so much better. We race on quite a few 1.5-mile ovals, but Texas is a whole different show because of the banking, and, in my opinion, that's what makes Texas Motor Speedway racing so exciting.

"As a CART driver, I used to watch the IndyCar Series races at Texas Motor Speedway, and TMS was a track that I always wanted to race on because it looked like the drivers were having so much fun." Unser also credits his fellow drivers.

"I don't want to minimize what the drivers do," Unser said. "Because of the number of times we've raced at Texas, they know what to expect each time we go. They're comfortable to race the way they do around there, only inches apart all day long. It's mentally and physically challenging to them, but they know what to expect and are comfortable to do it. They know the car will stick and not slide into a guy 6 inches away. That tends to make for a pretty good show."

"In fact, it's interesting now we see guys at places like Texas, Michigan and Chicagoland position themselves in the last 20-30 laps in a race to be beside or behind the leader for the last 25 laps trying to pull around him just at the end to cross the line first and win." Perhaps the secret lies in the strategy.

"At Texas you definitely have to plan your strategy for the finish," Unser said. "It will be side by side, if not the entire race, then definitely the last 20 laps, and you have to have a strategy on how you're going to get in front because you are going to need it."

Between the aero package, a smooth, high-banked track, skilled drivers and strategy, one thing is certain at Texas: There's going to be great racing and incredibly close finishes.

Interestingly, Barnhart had one final ironic observation about the fantastic finishes.

"The hardest part of being so successful at Texas is where a guy may win by half a second, and people are disappointed," Barnhart said.

-irl-

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Al Unser Jr. , Scott Dixon , Brian Barnhart , Sam Hornish Jr.