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Texas race was thrilling for many, terrifying for some

Graham Rahal, right, and James Hinchcliffe had a thrilling battle to to the finish at Texas, but was it too close for comfort? Mike Stone/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway

Whether you watched the Firestone 600 unfold from the cockpit of an IndyCar, from atop a "war wagon" in the pits, from the grandstands at Texas Motor Speedway or from the comfort of your living room, it was an involving experience.

There were times during 177 laps of sometimes frantic competition Saturday night when the action looked straight out of 1999, with a four-wide pack that looked more Indy Racing League than Verizon IndyCar Series. On other occasions, James Hinchcliffe gapped the field like a driver could and often would in the USAC or CART era.

A series of late-race cautions set up a nine-lap sprint to the finish that some observers described as the best racing you'll see all year, while others viewed it as Russian roulette with four-wheeled missiles.

In that final run to the checkered flag, Graham Rahal's car bounced around like a pinball between other machines, but he maintained control and kept his right foot pinned to the throttle. He hunted down Hinchcliffe, darted to the inside in Turn 3 on the last lap to take the lead for the first time all night, and held on through Turn 4 and the dogleg to cross the line 0.0080 seconds ahead in the closest IndyCar finish in TMS history.

And Texas is definitely a track with plenty of IndyCar history.

After the race, the drivers looked like they were experiencing a mixture of joy and relief. If watching a race is a nail-biting experience from outside the car, it must be even worse from the cockpit.

"We put ourselves in some pretty precarious situations tonight and everybody came out OK," admitted Hinchcliffe. "Nobody did anything stupid, and everybody played nice, very respectful."

"Oh, that was so much fun," exclaimed Tony Kanaan in a television interview immediately after the finish. "I had to dig into my hard drive and remember pack racing again. It's always a pleasure to race like that."

"It was really intense," he added later. "I'm not used to that, but I think it was just the nature of the product that we created for this race. We kind of went away from a pack race a long time ago, and we kind of migrated back just because it was very different circumstances today."

Kanaan was referring to the fact that Saturday night's action was actually the resumption of a race that was scheduled for June 11, then started and run for 71 laps on June 12 on a muggy afternoon before another Texas-sized thunderstorm set in. The IndyCar rulebook dictated that the race restart from the point it was red-flagged, rather than begin anew. It also required for cars to start the night race set up the way they were back in June, in the higher downforce trim of an afternoon race.

Despite the extra downforce, a full-fledged pack race never really broke out. But the frantic shuffling between Rahal, Hinchcliffe, Kanaan, Simon Pagenaud and Helio Castroneves in the closing laps certainly brought back memories of those days -- the kind of memories that excite some fans and terrify others.

The difference, according to the drivers, is that they were being forced to lift for the corners and balance the car, rather than just floor it and steer.

"It's a lot different than what it used to be," said winner Rahal. "It's 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."

"This is why I wish we had more mile-and-a-half tracks on the schedule," added Hinchcliffe. "This is a lot of fun for us. People have got to pedal the car, it's not just wide-open racing the whole stint like it was in days past."

The last time an IndyCar Series event created the kind of social media buzz that came out of Texas was the race at Auto Club Speedway in June 2015. Coincidentally, Rahal won that race, too.

Rahal drives a Honda-powered car for a team co-owned by his father, three-time Indy car championship winner Bobby Rahal. As a parent, a team owner, ex-driver, and even ex- acting CART series CEO, nobody has more perspective on an event like Texas than the elder Rahal.

With the day-to-day operations of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing managed by others, Bobby Rahal wasn't present at Texas Saturday night. Like many fans, he monitored the race via timing and scoring on his cell phone, before finally seeking out a television to watch the crucial final laps.

Through the filter of a lifetime in racing, Rahal liked what he saw.

"It was a great race, and the drivers at the front drove very, very well in very close quarters," he observed. "I think maybe they're maybe not getting as much credit as they should be getting, because there is truly not much margin for error, yet those guys were able to race for lap after lap in very tight confines or formation. They were able to run to the end and it got people talking.

"All you need to do is look at social media -- everybody is going crazy, as they did at Fontana last year. Obviously that kind of racing strikes a nerve with people in a good way."

But did it make Rahal nervous watching his kid -- admittedly, Graham Rahal is a man of 27 who is mature beyond his years -- out there in that environment?

"It is stressful for any parent watching their child out there," Bobby Rahal said. "But he was racing with good guys he could trust like Hinchcliffe, Kanaan and Simon. You get farther back in the pack and you get guys you wouldn't trust as far as you can throw them. At least when you are up front, you're running with guys that understand it and drive responsibly.

"It's obviously stressful and exciting, however you want to describe it," he added. "I was just pleased that everybody respected each other and raced well. It's obviously a younger man's sport. That's not for the faint of heart, to be very clear. There's a lot of fortitude and judgment that these guys have to race like that and maybe they are not being celebrated enough."

Ironically, many people think of drivers like Bobby Rahal and those from earlier generations as heroes for surviving their era. Some believe racing a Formula 2 car with a tub made out of crinkly aluminum at the Nurburgring Nordschleife in the 1970s like Bobby did must be far more dangerous than running within inches of another car (and sometimes touching) at 220 mph at a SAFER Barrier-padded track like Texas.

Bobby Rahal admits that drivers of his era faced a different kind of danger.

"When I drove, [the racing] wasn't that close," he said. "But it was just different. In my day, the cars were a lot less safe and the tracks were a lot less safe. So there were risks from a different angle, so to speak. We had other risk factors that weighed into the equation far more than they do today. That's not to say you won't have bad situations today, but the odds are a lot more in the driver's favor today than they were 20-25 years ago, let alone 50 years ago."

Outsiders may question whether the IndyCar Series is flirting with disaster by running a car specification that still occasionally produces pack racing. But as a parent, entrant and racing enthusiast, Bobby Rahal is comfortable with what he sees.

"I think the officials have got a pretty good handle on what they need out of the car; it's produced some pretty good racing, and there will be some changes for the future that should make it even better," he said. "There were some races at Texas that weren't very good because of the tire degradation and light downforce and the drivers were just hanging on. This year, it was interesting that the guys that didn't change tires near the end -- Graham and Hinchcliffe -- still finished 1-2, and new tires didn't make the difference.

"You have to give them some congratulations for coming up with an aero setting that obviously works pretty well."