Today’s question: What was the most exciting NTT INDYCAR SERIES race at Texas Motor Speedway since the series started competing there in 1997?
Curt Cavin: Where to begin with this one given the thrills of 26 years of racing and the excitement that seems to come with each green flag. I was there when Arie Luyendyk rightly protested his victory in June 1997 and was witness to the victories of fan favorites John Paul Jr., Mark Dismore, Jeff Ward, Tomas Scheckter, Ryan Briscoe, Ed Carpenter and Graham Rahal, among the many others. But the best of the best was the fall race in 2002, when defending series champion Sam Hornish Jr., who had won the previous year’s Chevy 500, went wheel to wheel with new series regular Helio Castroneves for the lead throughout the final 25 laps with the championship on the line. The two aces spent most of that time with their cars no more than 2-3 feet apart, with Hornish’s spotter, Pancho Carter, saying “Still on the inside, still there, still there” several times a lap, and they appeared to touch on a few occasions. If Castroneves had won the race, Hornish only needed to finish second to secure the season title – Hornish would have won on a tiebreaker, with more race wins during the year – but Hornish went for it all. Hugging tight to Castroneves’ right in the outside lane, Hornish won by .0096 of a second, then the second-closest finish in series history (he beat Al Unser Jr. the week prior at Chicagoland Speedway by .0024 of a second). The undercard of that great Texas race was mighty Team Penske in its first IRL season against the spunk of Panther Racing, with those beautiful liveries – Panther’s yellow Pennzoil with the American flag on the engine cowling and the traditionally clean orange and white of Marlboro Team Penske – producing a race never to forget. Who finished third? Rookie polesitter Vitor Meira in just his fourth series race.
Joey Barnes: There have certainly been quite a few memorable ones at my home track. I can recall being one of roughly five journalists on site – relegated to the press box – for the “behind closed doors” race of 2020. That one qualifies as an oddity more than anything. However, if I’m going with favorite race, I don’t know how anyone doesn’t go with the debut in 1997. There was drama on the track, in the pits, in victory lane; that race really set the tone for what the track was bringing to the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. According to the broadcast that featured Paul Page and Jon Beekhuis, there was an unofficial number of 128,500 fans in attendance, flooding the packed frontstretch grandstands with color. Tony Stewart started on pole and was a force out front, but Buddy Lazier rose through the field and stalked the leader as the pair had a spirited battle for the early to mid-portion of the True Value 500. Lazier looked every bit the part as the only driver equipped to handle Stewart that night, leading 57 laps. At one point, Stewart ran out of gas and fell a lap down but managed to overcome and find the lead once again, lapping the field up to fourth place. But engine woes were the concern throughout the race. Marco Greco, Robbie Buhl, Robbie Groff and Lazier all exited with engine failures. Buhl being Stewart’s teammate, it got the attention of him and the rest of Team Menard. The feeling for the last 30 laps was that Stewart, despite dominating, was at risk of the engine blowing up, and the tension increased with every lap. As Stewart crossed the start/finish line to begin the penultimate lap, smoke erupted from the back of the car, oil from the Oldsmobile Aurora V8 blanketed the rear tires and the backend snapped out as the Stewart slammed the outside wall in Turn 1. Rookie Billy Boat, who was called up three weeks prior by A.J. Foyt to race in the Indianapolis 500 – where he scored a top 10 and was given the chance to compete at Texas – crossed the finish line first, ahead of teammate Davey Hamilton to give Texas-based AJ Foyt Racing a 1-2 finish. Or so we thought… Celebrations in Victory Lane were interrupted with Arie Luyendyk disputing the result, which led to Foyt delivering “The Slap” to the Dutchman as emotions erupted. Scoring for the race, handled by USAC at the time, ultimately wasn’t settled until the next day, which then awarded Luyendyk as the winner, having, at some point, actually pulled an entire lap on the field. This ended up being the final race with INDYCAR having USAC handle timing and scoring. A new system, which is still used today, was put in place for the following round at Pikes Peak International Raceway. Oh, while it was tough to see Boat get his first win taken away, he returned with a vengeance to the Lone Star State the next year and got that maiden INDYCAR victory, and with AJ Foyt Racing.
Paul Kelly: Joey made reference to my favorite INDYCAR SERIES race at Texas – Billy Boat’s victory in 1998. It was the first race I ever worked at TMS, as I was six months into my tenure with INDYCAR and Indianapolis Motor Speedway. While it was cruel to see Boat’s “victory” in 1997 stripped after an all-night scoring audit, it was the correct call. But Boat and AJ Foyt Racing left no doubt this time in a spellbinding race. Speed was a central theme at this event, as changes to the track configuration and a fresh repave increased velocity. Tony Stewart started on the pole at 224.448, and he turned laps as fast as 228 mph in the draft during the race, which is borderline nuts for a 1.5-mile oval. But there was far more to this race than pace – the side-by-side racing was fantastic. Boat and Scott Goodyear dueled wheel-to-wheel for five laps before the midway point in a tantalizing appetizer of what was to come. By halfway, Greg Ray and Stewart joined Boat up front, running nose to tail and attempting slingshot passes. Boat also evaded calamity on Lap 144 when he banged wheels with J.J. Yeley, leaving a rubber doughnut on the side of Boat’s No. 14 Conseco Aurora. Stewart beat Boat to the front on the ensuing restart, but his chances for victory ended when his left sidepod radiator ruptured on Lap 177. Then the final laps became the Boat and Ray show. Boat started to build a gap over Ray but got held up in traffic with 13 laps to go, letting Ray pull closer. With nine laps to go, Ray caught Boat by driving his No. 97 AT&T Wireless Services Aurora through the grass (!!!) in the infield in the tri-oval section of the track at better than 220 mph. It was one of the “biggest attachments” moves I’ve ever seen in racing, even to this day. And Ray tried the “lawn mower move” again, twice! Ray finally split the lapped car of Buzz Calkins to pass Boat for the lead, but Boat used the slingshot to regain the lead on the next lap and powered to victory by .928 of a second. The race was epic to me for not only what transpired on track but also as validation that the 1.5-mile oval was a perfect match for INDYCAR SERIES cars after the scintillating series debut in 1997 at TMS.