Houston weekend truly a case of the good, the bad, and the ugly

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This weekend’s Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston IndyCar doubleheader was truly a case of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” From attending 10 of the 15 race weekends (13 of 18 races) thus far this season, I’d have to rate this one lower than all the rest.

Most of you who read my work will know that I usually want to give IndyCar the benefit of the doubt, and I’m generally more positive than not. But there was almost no way to spin this weekend in Houston as a positive.

A few thoughts on winners, losers, and things that need fixin’:

THE GOOD

  • Scott Dixon. I touched on this earlier today but Dixon’s first and second-place finishes were his latest weekend success story in doubleheader races. As you might expect given the bad luck that hit him in Sonoma and Baltimore, Dixon and the Target Chip Ganassi Racing team came out firing.
  • Single file restarts. A rather inspired decision, actually, by INDYCAR given the nature of the last left-hand sweeper leading onto the front straight to have the cars restart single-file rather than double-file. While there were cautions in both races, none came as a result of the restarts. The only thing to monitor from here is where the leader launched from; perhaps moving the acceleration zone closer to start/finish would ensure a closer restart.
  • Corporate sponsorship and attendance. Everywhere around the 1.7-mile MD Anderson Center Speedway at Reliant Park street circuit, there were a flood of banners. Verizon, blu eCigs and of course, title sponsors Shell and Pennzoil had a heavy presence. The Houston Chronicle said organizers projected a weekend crowd of 150,000 fans. It certainly wasn’t that many but the grandstands looked relatively full after a six-year absence for the race.  At the very least, there was enough interest to want to see the race continue on an alternate date next year assuming changes are made.

THE BAD

  • Reliant round-robin. Anyone working the event will have had their heads spin at some point over the course of this weekend because there were four buildings, all sponsored by Reliant, you had to keep straight. The track itself is called Reliant Park, with the media center in Reliant Arena, which is inside the track and pit lane. The place to pick up media credentials, though, was in Reliant Center – outside the track and a ways from most parking lots. Add in Reliant Stadium, the current football stadium for the Houston Texans, and Reliant Astrodome, the sponsor of the now-dilapidated “eighth wonder of the world,” and it was a challenge to make sure you were in the right place.
  • Logistical shuffling into pits. For all series racing at Houston – IndyCar, the three Mazda Road to Indy divisions, Pirelli World Challenge and the Mazda MX-5 Cup series – there were just two ingress/egress points to move all cars and equipment from the paddock into pit lane. All cars entered at pit in, left at pit out, and it was a circus watching all cars and equipment from the next series move into place as the others exited stage right.
  • Helio Castroneves’ weekend. Gearbox gremlins strike at the worst possible time. Twice. I can’t help but feel the Brazilian is snake bit.

THE UGLY

  • Turn 1… The timeline to build the track was condensed down to 5 days for race promoter Lanigan Promotions after the Texans’ game last Sunday went into overtime. And while a track build of 5 days is still plenty impressive considering most street courses take weeks, there was an obvious lack of foresight in seeing that Turn 1’s bump was going to be a problem. No cars had properly driven over that surface in anger in six years, and no tests of any kind were conducted before Friday’s first session. I had a radio in for Pirelli World Challenge practice and on the first lap, a call went out, “We have reports of cars launching all 4 wheels airborne at Turn 1.” And so the weekend of chaos began in earnest…
  • …Then the temporary chicane. A quick fix, no more, no less. After the delay for track repairs on Friday, all sessions ran with the chicane, but come Saturday, that was reduced to just USF2000 and Pro Mazda the rest of the weekend. So that meant the chicane was sometimes there, sometimes not, and caused delays to what was already a fragmented schedule.
  • …And the schedule. The Friday delays meant Indy Lights got one practice session canceled. Series had qualifying changed to practices. Mazda MX-5 actually ran its first practice in the dark with only some floodlights on Friday. And then the Sunday accident actually meant the rest of the day’s sessions would be canceled, so MX-5 didn’t even get to race. Throughout all of this, there never seemed to be a coherent, consistent message as to what the schedule was and how it was evolving. It was haphazard and felt almost as if it was made up as we went along. This is my eighth season covering motorsports and other than Friday of Baltimore Year 1, I cannot recall a worse weekend schedule.
  • …And the resulting communication breakdown. So as we’re trying to figure it all out as we go, the disinformation and misinformation shifts to Sunday morning, when rain threw another monkey wrench into the weekend and canceled IndyCar qualifying. Fair enough, so we’ll set the field by entrant points, and Scott Dixon will be on pole. A photo gets taken, Dixon comes into the press conference room. And then an hour or so later I get a text from my colleague Chris Estrada – who was also on site and provided excellent coverage this weekend – saying “I’ll update the story now that Helio is on pole.” What. The. Fill-in-the-Blank here. Apparently the rulebook states that if qualifying is canceled for a race during a doubleheader weekend, entrant points do set the grid – but it’s entrant points entering the weekend, not after Race 1. OK, then. Last but certainly not least…
  • …And of course, the last-lap wreck. Icing on the cake, really, for what I only half-jokingly referred to as a “goat rodeo” of a weekend. Racing is dangerous and accidents happen. You accept those risks going into it. The fact of the matter though is that on street courses, accidents such as Dario Franchitti’s are infrequent, and have a lower probability of happening because cars don’t run in huge packs or at their terminal velocity. Mainstream coverage from the “passerby national media” followed – same as it did after Las Vegas, 2011 – where agendas usurped fact-checking on their checklist and questions about IndyCar’s safety and “what happened to Ashley Judd’s ex-husband” were asked. It was salt in an open wound.

THE VERDICT

Much of what happened this weekend was preventable in advance. It’s a hit to street courses, most of which are a big draw for IndyCar’s business model because of the “bring the race to the people” mindset that can work if done properly. It’s a hit to the city of Houston, which was hoping to showcase itself in a grander light on a national scale and instead is now as damaged as the interior of the Astrodome. Most of all, it’s a hit to IndyCar, whose often excellent on-track product was simply unable to overcome the challenges faced this weekend.

IndyCar Grand Prix of Alabama final practice report

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Will Power posted the fastest lap in the third practice session for the Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala. with a speed of 122.953 mph.

Rookie Robert Wickens (122.552 mph) was second fast, foretelling a continuation of his incredible rookie season.

Scott Dixon (122.237), Ryan Hunter-Reay (122.231) and Alexander Rossi (122.106) rounded out the top five.

The practice was interrupted several times for incidents. 

Ed Jones spun off track in turn five after locking up his brakes with 30 minutes remaining in practice three. He was able to drive back to the pits under his own power.

With 20 minutes still on the clock, Jordan King took a trip into the fence after posting a fastest lap of 121.753 mph. He sustained substantial left side damage to his car and came back to the pits on the hook.

“I’m annoyed really,” King said afterward on the live stream at IndyCar.com. “I slightly locked the inside front, then just stayed off onto the grass and that was it. But I wasn’t really even pushing that hard.”

With two minutes remaining, Charlie Kimball lost power and pulled off the track, bringing an end to the practice session.

Dixon also had an off-road excursion.