Rinus Veekay passes Alexander Rossi on the fourth turn during the first practice round of the IndyCar Series auto race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas on Saturday, March 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Larry Papke) The Associated Press
By JENNA FRYER, AP Auto Racing Writer
FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — IndyCar’s long relationship with Texas Motor Speedway is at a crossroads headed into the 35th race at the track that has always embraced the open-wheel series.
Texas has hosted IndyCar since the track opened in 1997 but its existing contract, done by Eddie Gossage, who retired as general manager last year, expires after the race Sunday. And now the future of this oval fixture on the IndyCar schedule is in jeopardy.
Attendance has dwindled for years and only a smattering of spectators were in the stands Saturday for three practice sessions and qualifying. IndyCar was up against the NCAA Tournament being played 30 minutes away from the Fort Worth track, but there also was a noticeable lack of promotion or activation in the fifth-largest market in the country.
But the bigger problem is a track reconfiguration and accommodations done for NASCAR made Texas a poor fit for IndyCar. Texas used a traction compound in the turns to help create a second passing lane for NASCAR, but the PJ1 compound doesn’t match with the Firestone tires used in IndyCar.
It makes a high line that is far too slick and dangerous for the IndyCar drivers: Will Power said the track “is like ice” in the second groove after he led six other drivers in a special practice session designed to create a second lane.
The 30-minute practice was Power’s brainchild, but the Team Penske driver said it would have only been effective if the entire 27-car field participated. But very few teams wanted to take the risk of wrecking a car Saturday afternoon with a Sunday morning race looming.
“I looked at it, and almost crashed,” Alexander Rossi said.
Even so, the seven drivers on track combined for 294 laps in a second lane that doesn’t exist.
“That’s 294 laps we didn’t run up there before,” said Jay Frye, IndyCar president of competition. “We’ll see how it goes.”
Power was not optimistic — he crashed in testing last week when he tried to run the top lane — and said he will not be the driver to try to create a second lane on Sunday. If others can prove it works, then he might give it a go.
“It’s good we’re trying, we’re trying to put on the best show possible. So it was worth doing to see if we potentially can ride two-wide,” Power said. “I think the problem is you are so afraid to get into that stuff and then you are just off into the fence. I did the special session because I want two-lane racing, but in the race situation, bit gun shy right now.”
Felix Rosenqvist, coming off a disappointing first season with Arrow McLaren SP, earned a much-needed pole in Saturday qualifying with a lap at 221.110 mph in his Chevrolet. The time stood as 16 drivers tried to knock him off the pole and Scott McLaughlin, winner of the season-opening race at St. Petersburg last month, just missed bumping the Swede from the top starting spot as the final driver out.
McLaughlin went 221.096 for Team Penske to just barely miss the pole but give Chevrolet a lockout of the front row. Takuma Sato qualified third in a Honda for Dale Coyne Racing and was followed by Power as Chevrolet took three of the top four spots.
Six-time Texas winner Scott Dixon, winner of the first race in a doubleheader last year, qualified fourth for Chip Ganassi Racing and was followed by four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves of Meyer Shank Racing.
Jimmie Johnson, the winningest driver at Texas with seven wins in NASCAR, qualified 18th in his IndyCar oval debut. It was his best qualifying effort in 14 IndyCar races.
Colton Herta a week ago signed a contract to test a Formula One car for McLaren this season — the job his friend and former teammate Pato O’Ward has also desperately chased.
O’Ward, who did test for McLaren in Abu Dhabi in December, can still sign a contract to be added to the 2022 testing program but for now has chosen to explore the free agent market. McLaren head Zak Brown has stressed repeatedly there is room for both Herta and O’Ward — as well as other young drivers — but O’Ward has been on the defense since Herta’s signing was announced last Saturday.
Herta said at Texas the two have not spoken since he signed at McLaren. In January, they were teammates on their class-winning car at the 24 Hours of Daytona.
“He shouldn’t be mad at me,” Herta said. “I don’t know if they offered him to drive the car, or what, or if they’re still working on a deal for that. I have no clue, but they asked me, so.”
Herta said his McLaren deal is completely separate from his current contract with Andretti Autosport, and Michael Andretti has said he’d take Herta with him to F1 if he can land a team. But this testing contract is for McLaren to evaluate the Californian — a chance he never thought he’d receive when he ended his European pursuit at the end of the 2016 season.
“It’s not tied to Andretti in any way,” Herta said. “It’s cool because I’ll finally get to drive an F1 car after all these years of trying to just be able to test one. I’ll finally be able to do that this year. I never really thought anything like this would happen.
“I feel like until me and Pato came in, and McLaren, there was really no correlation from IndyCar to F1.”
And as for his chances?
“I know I’m quick. I know I can go fast in a racecar,” Herta said.
WATCHING FROM AFAR
Romain Grosjean watched Formula One qualifying in Bahrain rooting for former teammate Kevin Magnussen, who got his job with Haas F1 back last week when the team needed a driver to replace Nikita Mazepin.
Grosjean and Magnussen were both dropped by Haas after 2020 as the team went with rookies Mick Schumacher and Mazepin, a Russian who lost his seat as part of the fallout of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Grosjean and Magnussen had both said they’d never go back to F1, but Magnussen has not only returned to his old seat, but he’s been very fast.
Haas was the worst team in F1 last year but Magnussen qualified seventh in Bahrain for the season-opening race. Both he and Schumacher advanced out of the first round of qualifying — the first time that’s happened since 2019.
“I am happy for him, I’m happy for Ferrari as well, and its a complete shakeup,” said Grosjean, who then congratulated McLaren’s IndyCar team for winning the pole in Texas “because they are definitely not in Bahrain.”
McLaren drivers Lando Norris qualified 13th and Daniel Ricciardo was 18th ahead of Sunday’s season-opening F1 race.
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