As you drive on State Highway 114 West, Texas Motor Speedway rises up large out of the flat horizon, like something out of Las Vegas. And how else would it appear? Perfectly fitting for a state that does everything big!
TMS is a big, beautiful, modern race track that can produce some of the most hair-raising battles we see each season. Packs of cars and four-wide jockeying into the turns is the norm. The facilities are well-kept, and the staff has a sense of pride about their home. Hospitality is a priority.
And they don’t skimp on the heat and humidity, either.
Today was scorching. I didn’t even look at the Firestone stand to see the numbers. I figured staying in denial might help me feel a tad cooler.
I arrived just in time to set up, grab a bite, and head out for the 12:30 practice session. A decent breeze helped it be slightly less miserable, but after about an hour, I was drenched and needing a third bottle of water. I can’t imagine driving in a fire suit in a hot race car, but 30 racers did just that — running laps, practicing pit stops, waiting patiently in their cockpits while their teams made adjustments to the cars.
There wasn’t too much from the first practice to raise eyebrows, except maybe Alex Lloyd being third-fast in the session at 214.326 mph. The pits were not very crowded, with just teams, officials, media, and a few die-hard fans braving the heat. But there was a larger than usual crowd around the pit of JR Hildebrand. I suspect it was partly to do with the Indy finish and partly due to the knee injury he sustained Thursday while running an obstacle course for a National Guard promotion at TMS. JR definitely favored his left leg when standing, keeping most of his weight shifted onto the right foot. He ran a strong fourth in this practice, so the knee doesn’t seem to be impacting him too much at this track.
By the time qualifying came around at 3:45, the heat was just ridiculous. I spent all of qualifying on pit road, shooting the cars and stars as they rolled up to the qualifying line. I couldn’t get IMS Radio on my scanner, and the TV channel that worked had so much cross-talk that I really couldn’t hear the program. It was weird feeling so out of touch with the thing I was standing right in the middle of.
Qualifying produced an early surprise with rookie Wade Cunningham holding the provisional pole in his first IndyCar race while a third of the field tried to knock him off. The driver who finally did was a surprised Tony Kanaan, who found speed he didn’t have in practice. Not much later, the “red cars” took over for a while, until Alex Tagliani rode in on his copper-splashed steed and saved the day! (Okay, okay — it was cool but not that dramatic. It’s just nice to see someone other than the red cars get to take the Peak Performance Pole Award trophy home now and then. And Tag doing this two races in a row is terrific!) A strong fourth-place showing by Takuma Sato was also heartening — he and Kanaan demonstrated that KV is finding its feet here at Texas. Ed Carpenter and Sarah Fisher Racing also looked strong, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they landed a top-three finish. Cunningham ended up a very respectable eighth in his first IndyCar qualifying session. Disappointing sessions were had by Helio Castroneves (13th), Marco Andretti (23rd), Justin Wilson (27th) and Simona de Silvestro (29th). Simona did tweet later in the evening that they found the problem with her car and that they should have a good race. Starting at the back of the field is rookie James Jakes, whose car failed technical inspection before qualifying and did not participate in the session.
Dan Wheldon was everywhere today — at the credential office when I got there, in the media center on and off all day — and taking congratulations and questions from people at each turn. I see he’s getting more compliments on his driver analyst work on Versus today, but I’d much rather see that much talent in a race car. As much as things are generally moving forward for INDYCAR, examples like Wheldon’s remind us that there is still a way to go.
I’m not big on predictions, but here are some drivers to watch tomorrow: Tagliani, Carpenter, Hildebrand (practiced strong this evening), Sato, and Kanaan. Of course, Franchitti and Dixon will likely factor into the results, but we’re hoping that two races, the second with a random starting order (via blind draw after the first race), will shake things up a bit. And don’t forget Davey Hamilton’s story: he’s racing at Texas for the first time since his terrible accident here in 2001. Curt Cavin tweeted that he and Kevin Lee would not be surprised if Davey retired after this event, especially if he has a solid run. There are plenty of story lines to keep things interesting, on top of seeing how teams approach the double-headers. It could be a wild night at TMS!