Shell And Pennzoil Grand Prix Of Houston

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.

Karam: “A tricky qualifying run for the Gas Monkey Energy car”

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Editor’s note: Sage Karam, a past champion in both the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda series who finished ninth in his first Indianapolis 500 with DRR in 2014 at age 19, will file a series of blogs for NBCSports.com this month. Here’s his third entry, after qualifying and a crazy Monday practice session. You can read his first and second blogs here.  He’ll run the No. 24 Gas Monkey Energy Chevrolet for Dreyer & Reinbold – Kingdom Racing. 

Hi there, Sage Karam checking in again from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It’s Monday, and we put our No. 24 Gas Monkey Energy Chevrolet back into race trim after two days of qualifying for the 100th Indy 500. It was wild out there today! You saw some crazy action out there after qualifying.

But as I mentioned in the lead up to qualifying, the past week’s practice sessions saw a multitude of weather changes from cool to hot, from windy to not. All the time, my Dreyer & Reinbold–Kingdom Racing team did a super job making all of the adjustments for race conditions.

We then put the race car into qualifying trim; you take off the downforce you needed versus when you were running around other cars on track. In qualifying, it’s a four-lap sprint by yourself, and you attempt to get the maximum speed possible.

On Saturday, the first day of qualifications, I think the track really changed from the rest of the week, and I think it threw a lot of guys off, me especially. The car balance did a complete 180 on us. We were loose Friday, as the rear end of the car wants to come around on you.

But, on Saturday, we had a lot of understeer, so it kind of caught us off guard in the morning. We went back to the garage before qualifying and did some changes as we were not really sure what we had, and it was just kind of a gamble.

I mean I was flat (on the throttle), and I told myself I was going to go flat. I put my left foot over my right foot and that was it. I worked with my tools in the car (weight jacker, etc.) and I went flat three laps. On the fourth lap, the car started understeering again and I had to crack the throttle about five to ten percent going into turn one. So, there’s more left in the car. We’re low on downforce then, just because we didn’t know what we were going to have.

I knew the car had a lot more speed left in it, and I knew I have a great team with DRR-Kingdom Racing and Gas Monkey Energy on board. So we went back to the garage and we look at the computer charts and numbers. I thought there was at least another mile an hour left in the car, just in downforce. We were looking to come in to Sunday be in the 229-mile average range. I thought we could be at 228 or 229 for Sunday’s final qualifying runs.

On Sunday, I was not pleased with our qualifying attempt. We just had too much downforce in the car. The track temperature kept climbing throughout the afternoon. So the team wanted to keep a little more downforce in the car to handle the hotter track.

But some clouds came over the Speedway right before our qualifying attempt. The cloud cover definitely cooled off the track surface and we just didn’t need that much downforce. The car was good Saturday that I thought we had a shot at tenth, which is the best you can get if you miss the top nine on the first day.

The track was changing every time you go out there. We thought we needed more downforce with the hotter track temperatures, and the temps went down 10 degrees with the clouds. I wish we could have taken the wedges out of the car and put in some of the speed ramps for straightaway speed. The weather was constantly changing and it just caught us out.

Photo: IndyCar
Photo: IndyCar

All this week, the Gas Monkey Energy crew have been outstanding on race setups, and I feel confident going into next Sunday. Fortunately, it’s not all about qualifying. It’s about next Sunday. It would have made my job easier for the race if we could have qualified a bit better than 23rd.

But it’s been nine months for me since my last race. It’s an incredible feeling to be back here at Indy. Anytime you are turning laps here, it’s still a magical feeling. I can’t wait to get back into Turn 1 with 32 other cars, and make 200 laps again.

This Friday will be our final one-hour practice before Sunday’s 100th Indy 500. It’s Carb Day, and it’s a fun event for the fans too. In addition, we will be in the Pit Stop Challenge on Friday afternoon. The last time I was with the DRR-Kingdom team, we finished second overall to Scott Dixon. Our crew is a fast one with the four-tire change and fuel. I feel we have a chance to win the Challenge this Friday.

Thanks for reading and we’ll have another blog before race day. Lots of media interviews and promotions are ahead the next few days, including having the Gas Monkey (on my shirt) meet up with animals at the Cincinnati Zoo on Tuesday.



Pippa Mann on Monday’s practice: “Like Carb Day on steroids”

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INDIANAPOLIS – A strong day at the office for Pippa Mann in her No. 63 Susan G. Komen Honda saw her end fifth on the speed charts, top Honda on the day, with 116 laps completed (second on the field only behind Simon Pagenaud and Max Chilton, who both ran 117 laps) and feeling much more confident about her Dale Coyne Racing car in race trim ahead of Sunday’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

While she acknowledged her best lap came courtesy of a tow – most of the quick ones did – it was still a relief to know her repaired chassis was back and good to go after the team found some additional niggling issues before her qualifying attempt on Sunday.

“It was not fun not being able to warm up, and go straight to your qualifying run,” she admitted during today’s post-practice press conference. “But I’m so grateful to the Dale Coyne Racing crew for giving me such a great car.

“I was very happy to be back in race trim today. We still have some work to do. Most of the people here caught a big tow – I’m no exception – but I hope we have a top-20, top-15 race car. People were better than me today, but there were people I was better than too.”

Mann was no exception to the frantic craziness that made up the session, in significant group running during the day that saw a grand total of 2,886 laps turned.

“It was Carb Day Mark 2.0… or potentially Carb Day on steroids,” she said. “We did that for four hours. It got a bit hairy a few times. No one wants to tear up a race car this close to race day for sure.

“But the good thing is that’s representative of what it will be like in the race. In the race when we have that many cars in a groove, you’re not gonna be able to run fast times,” she explained. “You use all the gears, occasionally the brakes – and yes it sounds weird at this place. You’re reacting after everyone.”

On Saturday, Mann and the No. 63 team faced adversity when a rear wing end fence failed, which pitched her into a spin for her initial qualifying attempt off Turn 2.

That being said, Mann did a rather good job to keep the car largely intact on corner exit, save for slight front wing and left front tire and upright damage – it could have been much, much worse.

The Saturday blip interrupted an otherwise productive week of practice not just for her, but the entire Coyne team. Mann – who’s better at setup and feedback than most probably realize – was keen to note the improvements she’s felt coming into her fifth Indianapolis 500, both from a team and from a Honda standpoint.

Photo: IndyCar
Photo: IndyCar

“The really big thing is after Indy last year I worked with Rob Ridgely, who was the engineer on (No.) 18 last year,” she said. “When I was talking to Dale about coming back and him going to four cars, he said, ‘We’ll bring “Ridge” back,’ and that made me smile.

“We got on really well, and it creates that continuity. All the races I’ve done after I’ve been missing, it’s often new people to learn and to work with. To have that continuity is fantastic, and I think it’s really shown.

“What’s really interesting for me is that my last reference point is coming off Pocono,” she added about Honda’s development.

“Honda has worked really hard this winter. To drive it again after last year, both of the actual platform – even though they haven’t changed it much – the (operating) window is better and bigger. In engine department, they’ve worked hard. We’re pleased with they’ve shown up with so far.”

Mann said her car appears to work better in cooler conditions than hotter ones – today saw ambient and track temperatures peak at 82 ambient and 122 track, per Firestone, at 3:30 p.m.

If it’s cooler, that may help her on Sunday, as she’ll start 25th.

“I can’t speak for Josef (Newgarden) but our car with a little bit of cloud cover, we’ve been very, very good,” said the driver who’s also doing the #GetInvolved campaign fundraiser.

“Better than today actually. We were OK. When the track temp came down we were looking quite good, and I’d move our target then from top-15 to 20, to maybe top-15 to low top-10 car? It makes quite a big difference.”

Newgarden leads frenetic, crazy Monday practice at Indy

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INDIANAPOLIS – Sunday is race day for the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, but today may as well have been a warm-up act following one of the craziest days of practice in recent memory.

Josef Newgarden led the day’s running in the No. 21 Preferred Freezer Chevrolet at 227.414, ahead of three other Chevrolets – Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon and Sage Karam.

“I think today is the most representative day that we’re going to get going into Sunday, which was great,” Newgarden said in the post-practice press conferences. “Everyone was in a pack together, which was great, because that’s what we need to see. Everyone needed to see what’s going to happen in a pack.

“To me, some guys looked good at certain points, and then they looked really bad at other points. I think that’s how it’s going to be on race day. You’re going to be good at one point. You’re going to be bad at the other. It’s about making your race more good than bad. You need to minimize the bad stints and maximize the good stints. I think that’s going to be the game.”

In fifth place, Pippa Mann turned her first practice laps since her qualifying attempt in the No. 63 Susan G. Komen Honda and was the top Honda at 225.833 mph.

Jack Hawksworth had a fire out the back of his No. 41 ABC Supply Co. Honda, and it was the third mechanical issue of the month for Honda.

In another Foyt car, Alex Tagliani made it out in a “Franken car,” either Hawksworth or Takuma Sato’s backup car, following his accident in qualifying.

Forgetting the times, in the 2,886 laps completed, it was just an insane amount of action with trains, passing, repassing and near-misses.

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Hinchcliffe’s recovery and pole is an incredible kickoff to Indy 500 (VIDEO)

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INDIANAPOLIS – Today marks the final full day of practice for this year’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. This practice day last year (then May 18), James Hinchcliffe suffered a near-death accident when going through Turn 3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

You know the story by now. The suspension piece pierced his upper thigh, he lost a lot of blood, and he was saved by both the Holmatro Safety Team and later, the Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital team.

It was a miracle Hinchcliffe even recovered but the fact he didn’t just recover – quicker than he anticipated – but is almost stronger after the fact is pretty dang cool.

He was back in a car in September for a test at Road America to kick off his testing process through the offseason. In the opening five races of the Verizon IndyCar Series season, Hinchcliffe has now banked three straight top-10 finishes, including his first podium since his return with third place in the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

Now, the drama has ratcheted up another level with Hinchcliffe first ending fastest in the first day of qualifying on Saturday, and then scoring the pole position on Sunday as the final driver in the Fast Nine Shootout to run.

“I get it (about the accident). It was a big deal. It was a big deal to me, too,” Hinchcliffe said in the post-qualifying press conference.

“And I understand that. And I really appreciated that people wanted to hear the story, wanted to tell the story for me. There was a lot of really, really nice pieces done, a lot of nice tributes done in that sense. But no, then you’re coming back to this place and you want to focus on the here and now and not remember or focus on hitting the wall at 125 Gs.

“So there was definitely a point where it’s kind of like, ‘Hey, is there anything else you want to talk about? Let’s lead with that and kind of see where we go from there.’ But we’ll see.

“Hopefully this is the topic of conversation for the next week and a week from now we’ve got an even better story to tell.”

One of those aforementioned “really nice pieces” referenced is that earlier this year, NBCSN shot this piece of Hinchcliffe’s accident and his recovery before he got back in his first race of the season at St. Petersburg.

Produced by Taylor Rollins, it premiered during our first show of the year, the pre-show for the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix.

You can see it above, as preparations intensify for the biggest race of the IndyCar season.