Daniel McFadin, NBC Sports.com
At Least They’re Coming Back
FORT WORTH, Texas – Fifteen years ago, a man and his 10-year-old son traveled from Arkansas to Fort Worth, Texas. There was a race to be watched.
It was the Firestone Firehawk 600 – aka, the inaugural CART race at the 5-year-old Texas Motor Speedway, the house that Eddie Gossage built.
On Sunday, April 29, 2001, the 10-year-old and his dad arrived at TMS. They planned to see names like Andretti, Tracy, Herta, Kanaan, Castroneves, Dixon and Brack zip around the 1.5-track for the first time in person.
Instead, they waited. Then waited a little bit more.
Eventually, a voice came over the track’s PA system at noon to let them and the more than 65,000 in attendance know they could go home.
Due to poor decisions, poor communication and the potential for catastrophe from unsafe speeds, the Firestone Firehawk 600 wouldn’t take place that day, or any one after it. It remains the only postponed race to be outright canceled in the history of North American open-wheel racing before the race began.
The trophy for the race still sits unwon in an office overlooking the track.
It’s weird how little can change in 15 years. Especially the names.
Sunday afternoon, another trophy sat on a counter in an office in the TMS Media Center. It was supposed to be awarded to one of 22 drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series’ Firestone 600 on Saturday night.
Drivers with the names of Andretti, Castroneves, Dixon, Kanaan and Rahal.
But the rains came early Saturday afternoon. Then the waiting began.
Waiting that involved as many afternoon showers as there were scheduled start times once the sun set.
After the third start time of 9:30 p.m. CT passed with no word of another one, cabin fever creeped in.
A threshold was crossed when cameras caught pole-sitter Carlos Munoz standing on pit road, holding a binder to his ear like he was talking on the phone. Rain delays with no end in sight will lead many to edge of reason.
The most reasonable occurrence of the night was a group of drivers wading into the grandstands. There they signed autographs for fans who deem the sport worthy of the wait.
That was backed by a soundtrack of jet dryers valiantly trying to dry a track, but lingering humidity and a lack of Air Titans said, "Sorry, try again tomorrow."
So we did.
Then came the miscommunication and consternation. While not nearly as egregious as what happened in 2001, it was still awkward.
Roughly 20 minutes after the scheduled start time of 2:06 p.m. ET, crews were still on the track trying to dry out portions of the backstretch and the apron.
Graham Rahal said someone needed to "apologize to the fans."
While Tony Kanaan said he was comfortable with whatever decision IndyCar made, after examining questionable spots on the apron ("It’s like you’d put your hand a swimming pool") Ryan Hunter-Reay believed if Sunday were a test day, "we wouldn't be running."
Gossage later explained the situation, doing his best to be diplomatic about it without disparaging the series that has competed at his track for 20 years.
"I don't think we've been on the same page with that particular matter," said Gossage, with INDYCAR president of competition and operations Jay Frye sitting to his right. "That's just a communication thing between us.
"We're both professional peers and personal friends. (TMS) felt like the track was ready at 10:30 (a.m). INDYCAR, as best we understood, they pulled the jet trucks off the track. They were, as we understood, pleased. All of a sudden we looked up right around 1:00 (p.m.), apparently they found an issue that they felt needed to be addressed in Turn 2.
"But there was no communication. We didn't know anything about it. So frustrating, but we're going to work that out. It's just one of those things. It may be our fault, it may be their fault. Let's just say it's our fault."
Whoever's fault it was, the race finally started just after 2:44 p.m. ET - 18 hours after its original time.
About four hours later, after 71 laps had been run - 30 under caution in what looked like a clear attempt to get the race to halfway - a message appeared on the Big Hoss video board and other TV screens throughout the track.
Similar to 2001, it told fans in attendance they could go home.
But in a fortunate twist, it also told them they could come back.
During a joint 20-minute conference, Gossage and Frye explained why - despite the cost to either side - the Firestone 600 of 2016 would be finished on Aug. 27.
Gossage: "Felt like that was the best way to best serve all the fans."
Frye: "Everybody has got to come back. We want to do this for our fans. We want to finish this event."
In that press conference - the kind absent in 2001 when CART and TMS couldn't be farther apart - was a journalist who went to see a race 15 years ago.
Luckily, everyone will get to see a trophy awarded, even if the date inscribed on it is wrong.
Return of ‘Old-School Texas’ Worth the Wait
FORT WORTH, Texas – If you squinted hard enough, it was 2002 all over again.
“It took some old-school Texas right there,” said Tony Kanaan, who was actually there. “I had to dig into my hard drive and remember how to do pack racing again, and it worked out pretty well.”
For a few hours Saturday night, it was as if 14 years hadn’t passed since Texas Motor Speedway’s peak era of “pack racing.”
James Hinchcliffe wishes that were the case. If it were, he might have won the 2016 Firestone 600.
“My night was great until about eight minutes to go,” Hinchcliffe joked in the TMS media center after finishing second to Graham Rahal in a race that began 77 days earlier on June 12.
Hinchcliffe led 188 laps between June 12 and Aug. 27, but Rahal led only one – the big one – by a track record .008 seconds.
“I’ve seen so many races won here on the high line, coming to the line because you just have that momentum off of (Turn) 4,” Hinchcliffe said. “I was going — thinking back to my IRL Classic days and Sam Hornish Jr.’s tricks and all the rest of it, but man, Graham just pulled through (Turns) 3 and 4 like no one had all night.”
Hinchcliffe, who lapped the field up to fifth place, said his No. 5 Honda was an “absolute rocketship.”
But after a late afternoon practice session, Rahal told his team over the radio that his No. 15 Honda was “a f—ing rocketship.”
Rahal initiated The Dive as he, Hinchcliffe and Tony Kanaan approached Turn 3 for the last time.
Other drivers, including Kanaan, had made similar desperate maneuvers in the seven laps since the last restart.
Rahal, who had restarted the race in 12th and at one point in the night survived a four-wide pass, was the only one who made it work.
“Once I could get there, I could drive through them,” said Rahal, who had to juggle battling Kanaan for second while also trying to overtake Hinchcliffe. “It was just a matter of trying to pick your spot, and very fortunately at the end, I knew I was going to have to try to take Hinch to the top side because there was only one way actually to clear him, which was to the bottom, and I was just very lucky it worked.”
After constantly fending off Kanaan, Hinchcliffe had expected to contend with him coming to the checkers. To Hinchcliffe’s surprise, it was the No. 15 that finally bested him as Kanaan settle into third.
“I hadn’t been next to a car all night that cleared me that quickly,” Hinchcliffe said, his right hand on his face in disbelief. “You know, he had the pace when he needed to. That was the time to make that move, and like I said, credit to him.”
Rahal, who won three times in the last two seasons, was gracious to Hinchcliffe as he wore the cowboy hat that winners at TMS are bestowed. The hat he lost to Justin Wilson in 2012.
“I have to thank Hinch a lot because, first of all, we’re flying home together tonight, so at least it’s not going to be awkward,” Rahal joked. “Second of all, he gave me some good room at the bottom and didn’t end up in tears. Have to thank him for good, clean driving.”
As Rahal and his car were pushed toward a waiting victory lane, his teammates would not stop yelling.
Amid the hollers, one gray-clad team member declared simply – “That’s racing!”
Even though he led 188 laps and finished second, Hinchcliffe agrees with those who snatched away his shot to wear a 10-gallon hat and fire off six-shooters.
“I had a blast. That’s the problem. I had an absolute blast. Had I not led every lap of the race, I would be much happier than I am,” Hinchcliffe said. “Certainly at the end we put on a hell of a show for the fans, and that’s what we’re here for … It would have been a lot more boring if some car just won by half a straightaway.”
That’s coming from the driver who until a series of late cautions, likely would have done that exact thing.
“It’s also a lot different than what it used to be,” Rahal said. “It is not just flat-out easy pack racing anymore. I mean, you were lifting a heck of a lot in traffic, but the way these cars suck up nowadays, the draft is huge so it just makes the racing awesome.”
It may have looked like 2002. But in 2016, it might have been better.