There is a looming possibility the NTT IndyCar Series will not return to Texas Motor Speedway following the XPEL 375 on March 20.
The 2022 season marks the final year of the current contract, with no indication – to this point, at least – of a possible extension in the works.
Since 1997, the pair have enjoyed an eventful relationship that has lasted through many highs and lows. It kicked off with controversy with Arie Luyendyk being slapped by A.J. Foyt in Victory Lane and was confirmed the winner after a video replay over Foyt’s driver, Billy Boat, moments later. When the series, known as the Indy Racing League at the time, needed to bolster a thin schedule, TMS was there to host two events, including the championship finale from 1999-2004. In the midst of that was also the CART disaster of 2001, which put a dark cloud on things.
Nevertheless, in the IRL era and into IndyCar, it became commonplace to see wins decided by mere inches in front of boisterous and full grandstands.
Then, there were the drainage issues that plagued the track that led to a two-part race in 2016, which featured a 76-day postponement that ended with Graham Rahal taking the victory of James Hinchcliffe by a narrow 0.0080s – the closest finish in TMS history.
A repave and reconfiguration for the 1.5-mile track followed, along with PJ1 traction compound courtesy of NASCAR as a byproduct of its own struggles, and the racing hasn’t been the same since.
On the IndyCar side, it’s delivered a new challenge, one where drivers have to be more calculated and take time to set up their passes. From a racing standpoint, it’s been more traditional and put a bigger emphasis on qualifying and track position, a more methodical look on track compared to the traffic jam scenery that would make those on I-35 envious.
Then, as if that weren’t enough, when the series needed to begin a pandemic-impacted 2020 campaign as a means for survival, TMS shouldered the responsibility of being the first to step up to the moment, which took place in front of empty grandstands.
Now, two years removed from that experience, the book on this tenured relationship might be coming to an end. There is one element to this year’s equation that could be a key determining factor with the new aero options – the barge boards and trimmed sidewalls – in an attempt for closer racing.
Additionally, though, Will Power, the 2014 IndyCar champion, proposed the series “have a session, like the 15 minutes of the last practice starts, where you can only run the second lane or 20 minutes and you get a set of tires if you do it; that would bring it in and people would be confident to go up there. But hopefully the downforce just allows us to be a bit more comfortable.”
At the moment, TMS is one of only four ovals on the 17-race IndyCar schedule, alongside Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Iowa Speedway and World Wide Technology Raceway.
Six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon acknowledged the pivotal role TMS has played during its time hosting 34 IndyCar races, and isn’t ready to see it abandoned by the series.
“For me, ovals in general are just very important,” said Dixon, a five-time winner at TMS. “You know, I feel like we are missing ovals at the moment. We need to add them. Then, looking at it from the other side of possibly, you know, if it was to come to that in losing Texas, that would be a huge hit. There’s been better races and not so good races here in the past, but I think this year they had a good plan to try and work through that. I know there’s a good plan in the future to try and figure out some of the other stuff as well.
“Even last year the racing was tough, but the finishes were still crazy. It’s a tough track. It’s a fun track. There’s no Winner’s Circle like it in the world. I know for me, it’s been one of the most fun places I’ve ever won. Luckily, with our team, we’ve had a really good track record here. So, I would be extremely sorry to see this place go. It is a staple. It’s one of the best tracks that we’ve raced at.”
Two-time IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden shared similar thoughts during a media availability on Thursday while testing on Thursday.
“I love Texas,” said Newgarden, the 2019 winner at TMS. “I think it’s a great track. You know, it adds to the diversity of our schedule; we don’t get another track like this. I think we’ve definitely had challenges here trying to get the racing where we want it product-wise, but we’re inching closer and closer to some of the years that we thought were really, really good.
“So yeah, I’d love to see it on. I don’t think anyone wants to see it go away. It’s a great track for us. Good fanbase. It’d be great to have them for a long time to keep our calendar as robust as it is.”