There is a constant state of speculation surrounding the future of the NTT IndyCar Series at Texas Motor Speedway.
The two are in the final year of the current contract, but the relationship that began in 1997 appears to be at a crossroads. In short, this Sunday’s XPEL 375 (12:30 p.m. ET on NBC) could mark the end of an era.
Rob Ramage, who was promoted to senior vice president and general manager of TMS last August after Eddie Gossage called an end to 25 years overseeing the facility, shared his stance on the situation ahead of the weekend’s festivities.
“We want IndyCar to be a long-time partner of TMS,” Ramage told TobyChristie.com. “We do. And it’s great for the fans. The people love it. And then from the perspective of IndyCar, I don’t care if you’re operating a pro bowling tour, the state of Texas is important for any professional sport. The state of Texas is important for any major event or any type of sporting activity that wants to be big time. My market and this (Dallas-Fort Worth) metroplex is the fourth largest in the United States of America, so it’s important for both of us to remain partners. I’m optimistic that the partnership will continue and as always, I enjoy and value my relationship and friendship and partnership with all the great people of IndyCar.”
One factor that Ramage, who has been with TMS since 2013 and held previous roles such as director of governmental affairs and senior vice president of finance and compliance, believes has turned into a positive is the date change. For the majority of its time, IndyCar always held a date in June but that was changed to early May last year before settling on this year’s date in March. The decision behind the move was part of an effort to “find a mutually beneficial date” between the broadcast partner, series and track.
“I’m not so hung up on June being when we always have to have an IndyCar race,” Ramage said. “You think about this weekend, my high on Saturday is supposed to be 76 degrees with almost no wind and no clouds in the sky. My high for Sunday is no wind and 70 degrees and not a cloud in the sky. How many times have you seen that weather in the month of June? When we’ve historically run the race in the month of June in Texas, it’s always been very, very hot. So you put your fan hat on and you always think of fans first.
“What would you rather do? Sit in the grandstands when it’s 76 degrees and no wind and not a cloud in the sky or 70 degrees, or sit in the grandstands in the Texas heat (in June) and watch what you’re passionate about. Personally, I’d rather be running in March. I think it’s just a better experience for all: for the competitors, for the drivers, the racing teams, for the fans, everybody. It’s just a better time period. I’m excited. I’m not that hung up on that it has to be in June or anything like that. I’m very blessed, very grateful that we have an IndyCar race this weekend and we’re gonna have beautiful weather.”
Last year, IndyCar opted to run a doubleheader event at TMS – a first since running ‘Twin 275s’ in 2011. It allowed the 1.5-mile oval to earn more revenue for two race title sponsors and provide an additional oval race for a series struggling to add them to the schedule. This year, however, the return of Iowa Speedway to the schedule allowed for a doubleheader event there as TMS was relegated back to just one race, hurting the chances to mitigate the financial loss of paying IndyCar’s sanctioning fee.
For his part, a doubleheader at TMS was something Ramage would have liked to see return this year as part of the current two-day show.
“I wanted it, so did everybody at TMS,” Ramage said. “It just didn’t work out, but we tried. We talked about it. If it was up to me, we would have three or four days of racing.”
It is no secret the primary concern for IndyCar coming to Texas is the racing product, which has been hampered with the stained PJ1 area as a byproduct of NASCAR. Something new for this year is the additional aero options for teams at Texas, with barge boards and trimmed sidewalls the focus for hopeful improvements. The element has been experimented with as the track has seen a flurry of activity recently, with six rookies testing two weeks ago ahead of Ed Carpenter Racing and Team Penske veterans pounding the pavement last Thursday.
“Everybody is very familiar driver-wise and competitor-wise, as well as Firestone with our track surface,” Ramage said. “We’ve done some grinding and things of that nature. We’re continuing to work with the series this week to see if there’s anything else that should be done or could be done, and we’re very optimistic.”
Ramage additionally noted comments from Team Penske’s Will Power, who provided a suggestion on what can be done to help improve the stained second groove.
“We just got to run up there, that will make that work,” Power said, during an availability with select media after the morning session last Thursday. “I keep pushing the series to 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.”
That decision is supported by TMS, which Ramage confirmed would take place on Saturday if it were to occur.
“If the series and the drivers, the competition piece, if they want to have that extra 30 minutes or hour or whatever it is they want to rubber in as has been suggested, everybody at TMS fully supports that,” Ramage said. “That’s a decision that the series, the teams and the drivers will have to make this week. If that occurs, then that would occur on Saturday. I do believe that we’ll have great racing. I think what you saw when they were here testing and it looked good to me. And I think the rubbering in practice time on Saturday, if the series and the teams want to do that, that’s something that we fully support and would stand behind.”
If Sunday is the end of the road for the longtime marriage of IndyCar at Texas, there will be a void left for many.
“We would miss it. The fans would miss it,” Ramage said. “I’m just optimistic that we will always be partners, but that’s really all I can say.”