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IndyCar's trust in drivers' skill pays off handsomely at Texas

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It's been a while since I've put words onto digital paper (I'm still calling it that, folks, because I'm old and irritatingly reticent to give up my old-school leanings). It's been a combination of many factors that has caused me to be silent. Busy? Yes, but there's also a bit of frustration built into the matrix that has kept me from being as prolific as I have been historically.

Since my last real column, we've had an Indy 500 for the ages, we've had TurboGate, we've had CEOGate, we've had The Great Track Surface Debacle, The Great Fail of China... well, you know how it goes by now in IndyCar. One step forward, two pistol shots into the feet to curtail all of that meddlesome walking.

What got me typing again, you ask? It's the afterglow from the recent race at Texas Motor Speedway. It's the enduring sensation I felt that, for the first time in fifteen years, I was able to see a real IndyCar race on a big banked oval. For me, it was more than just a great event - it was a philosophical break with one of the vestiges of the Indy Racing League that has been far too long in coming.

There are many things I abhorred about the Indy Racing League, I'll admit. The thing that galled me the most, I think, was that it was a dumbed-down formula that was as effective as a rancher chewing off a bull's testicles at neutering the sport.

From 1997 on, IndyCars were no longer the high-strung thoroughbreds which rewarded the jockeys who could ride and control them the best. The IRL cars of the Tony George era were chunky, kludgey, low-tech-looking pieces of junk with ugly-sounding V8 engines which, if you closed your eyes, made you feel like you were at a NASCAR race.

They were built to be cheap - whether they actually accomplished that goal or not, they certainly looked the part. Compared to the CART and Champ Car machines, they looked like school cars. With all the downforce they sported, they certainly drove like them.

The one thing those terrible IRL cars did well was create close racing - eventually, at least, once the talent level among the driver corps stopped being so agonizingly scattershot. With the enormous wings and lack of power, the cars could be driven flat-out for the entirety of a given race. That tended to make the field clump up into packs, unless a team was able to out-engineer others with trick parts or by dumping truckloads of money into wind tunnels and other resources unavailable to the rank-and-file teams.

One of the most egregious sins committed by the early IRL cars was that driver skill on the big ovals was reduced to an afterthought. As long as your foot didn't twitch and release the accelerator a bit, killing your momentum, you had a shot to stick with the pack.

Fans who didn't know better loved the pack racing because it brought the cars into close proximity, wheel to wheel and inches apart. The fact that the cars could not separate themselves because of the aerodynamics and downforce did not trouble these fans in the least. They crowed and danced at winning intervals of less than a second and scoffed at drivers who appeared shaken and irritated at the way they felt like they were playing Russian Roulette with their lives.

The truth is, that style of racing fell into the remedial level of automotive competition. Proximity replaced skill as the desired entertainment element. The closer the cars came, the better the racing - so went the conventional wisdom with the IRL formula. As the technical specifications of the series gravitated towards a single generic combination with the departure of other chassis, engine, and tire manufacturers, the cars and drivers had more and more difficulty separating themselves.

The natural evolution of this trend unfortunately expressed itself at the INDYCAR World Championships at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in October 2011.

The complaints from the drivers in the months since that dark day have had less to do with fear or mourning, as some fans have intimated, than with the pent-up and boiled-over feeling that it was past time to become racers again. The Vegas tragedy opened the door to drivers to express the claustrophobia they felt at being surrounded on all sides by other cars on the big banked ovals, without the power or aerodynamic ability to break free. Perhaps they felt the same way as the Mercury astronauts did at the beginning of the US space program - sitting in a tin can throwing switches like monkeys had been trained to do with next to no control over their own fate.

The Firestone 550K at Texas was a landmark because, for the first time in a decade and a half, INDYCAR appeared to trust its competitors to be able to control cars that were not pinned to the track for them. The cars were spaced out more on the track - leading to a truly perplexing moment when Ed Carpenter actually apologized to fans from his cockpit for putting on a "boring" race. But the tradeoff was that as drivers were able to master their far less cooperative race cars, they were able to make passes, gain advantages, and even make up entire laps as they approached their cars' "sweet spot."

It even provided a thrilling finish - not of the same kind as previous years, when two cars would take turns inching ahead of each other in a pack, but perhaps a more adult kind of finish when Graham Rahal pushed the outside of the envelope and finally went beyond his limits. It was the acceptance of a different sort of risk - not a needless risk forced upon the drivers by circumstance regardless of ability or skill, but a risk accepted of their own volition based on their skill and bravery.

In other words, it was the first time in a very long time that I've felt like the drivers of the IndyCar series were elite in more than just their marketing slogans.

That is a welcome feeling for me as a fan. From their own responses, most of the drivers seemed to agree.

I hope that this is a trend that continues in INDYCAR - treating teams and drivers like the top-caliber performers that they are. Maybe that will lead to more power, less downforce, and a reliance on courage and ability rather than rules-enforced crutches and aids.

For my part, it was fun to feel like INDYCAR was back in the big leagues for a night. I hope to feel that way again - often - in the future.