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.

More races, more friction in the future for F1

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) The new owners of Formula One are planning to have more races and a greater presence in North America, and wouldn’t mind revving up the ratings with some extra friction among drivers.

Sean Bratches, the managing director of commercial operations for the Formula One Group – formerly Liberty Media – which took over the running of the sport in January, is already fielding offers from promotors wanting to buy in.

Lewis Hamilton has suggested Miami and Daniel Ricciardo picked Las Vegas as places they’d like to see new races, and Bratches told a news conference Friday that “there’s no dearth of interest in bringing Formula One to circuits, both track and street, around the world.”

Bratches said he’d had a “number of inquiries from cities, states, municipalities and countries around the world that are interested.”

There are 20 races on the 2017 calendar, starting with the Australian Grand Prix on Sunday, and concluding with Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in November. The debate over the number and location of races has been frequent over the last decade.

F1 racing returned in 2012 to the United States, where it is held at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, in October. While the bulk of the races remain in Europe and Asia, there are also GPs in Canada, Mexico and Brazil.

“Our interest is in expanding the number of circuits in that marketplace, leveraging Austin – our incumbent and the benchmark in terms of what we’re doing in the States,” said Bratches, adding there was clear demand for it in North America. “We’re excited about all markets around the world, but the United States is going to be a focus.”

Three-time world champion Lewis Hamilton and Ricciardo, an Australian who finished third on the season standings last year, are among the drivers who’d like to see more than 20 races in the F1 series. Veteran Fernando Alonso also doesn’t mind the idea of expansion, although maybe not for a few years.

Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel, who has won four world drivers’ titles, thinks 16 to 20 would be enough. All agreed that expansion was pointless unless it increases the level of competition. Hamilton and Mercedes dominated the last three seasons, and Red Bull was dominant for the four seasons before that.

There’s always been driver tension in F1, usually between teams but also involving teammates vying for championships. Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, who edged Hamilton for the title last year and then retired, had an openly strained rivalry at Mercedes since 2013.

That’s something former ESPN executive Bratches doesn’t mind.

Responding to a question about the drivers being overly-managed by public relations people, Bratches said: “There’s a number of sports where there’s big personalities that allow sports to punch above their respective pay grades.”

He said the drivers were a big part of the fan engagement.

“Candidly, I would love it if more of the drivers had big personalities, there was more controversy among the drivers – and you kind of unleash them a little bit,” he said. “I think that’s good for all of us.”

Jolyon Palmer on the back foot in Australia after F1 practice crash

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Renault’s Jolyon Palmer has admitted that he is “on the back foot” heading into the remainder of this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix after completing just 10 laps in Friday’s Formula 1 practice sessions.

F1 sophomore Palmer arrived in Australia looking to impress after enjoying a bold drive on debut at Albert Park 12 months ago, narrowly missing out on a points finish.

The Briton was the first driver to fall victim of F1’s more challenging cars in an official 2017 race weekend session, losing control through the final corner and slamming into the wall to bring his FP2 running to an early end.

This followed a problem earlier in the day that had limited his FP1 mileage, leaving Palmer with just 10 laps to his name from three hours of Friday running.

“Sadly it was a pretty short day for me in terms of time in the car. We had a minor technical issue in the first session then I had an off in FP2, which unlike FP1 required more than one part replacing,” Palmer explained.

“I’m not sure exactly what happened and we’ll be having a close look at the data. I feel for my crew as they have a decent amount of work to do.

“I’m hopeful of more track time tomorrow, but we’ll be on the back foot heading into qualifying after only 10 laps today.”

Qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from 2am ET on Saturday morning.

Indy 500 champ Rossi takes his shot with the Blackhawks (PHOTOS)

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There are many cool things you get to do after winning the Indianapolis 500. Visiting the grounds of one of the NHL’s most successful, Stanley Cup-winning teams is one of them.

Andretti-Herta Autosport’s Alexander Rossi visited Chicago this week to meet up with the Chicago Blackhawks, trading in his usual No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts Honda for a No. 98 jersey.

Usually it’s the ‘Hawks that are one of the top teams in the NHL and a usual Stanley Cup trophy winner – they’ve won in 2013 and 2015, recently – but it’s the Cubs that right now host a championship trophy having won the World Series for the first time in 108 years.

Anyway, here’s a few photos and videos from Rossi’s trip to Chitown, which also included his own chance to shoot a puck.

Rossi took a photo with iconic Blackhawks singer Jim Cornelison:

Here’s Rossi with Marian Hossa:

Here’s a quick photo before practicing, then video of Rossi practicing:

Rossi paid a visit to WGN Radio:

And all told, Rossi was a fan:

FIA WEC reveals restructured TV commentary team

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One of Audi’s flagship drivers, Allan McNish and veteran TV hosts Martin Haven and Toby Moody join Louise Beckett and Graham Goodwin as part of the restructured television commentary team for the FIA World Endurance Championship, ahead of its 2017 season.

McNish retired from active driving at the end of the 2013 season and the two-time Le Mans winner and 2013 WEC LMP1 champion with Tom Kristensen and Loic Duval has remained an ambassador for Audi in the years since. He’ll be at six of the eight WEC rounds this season (Le Mans considered separately, although under the WEC umbrella).

Moody has been a familiar voice for his bike coverage and in the U.S., for Red Bull Global Rallycross broadcasts on NBC Sports. He’ll be on for the 6 Hours of Silverstone, the 6 Hours of Nürburgring and the 6 Hours of Bahrain.

Haven is well known to sports car fans and will be on for the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, 6 Hours of Mexico, 6 Hours of COTA, 6 Hours of Fuji and 6 Hours of Shanghai.

Beckett continues in the pits and paddock with DailySportscar editor Goodwin also back as part of the team; he’s been the lead analyst alongside John Hindhaugh the last couple years.

Hindhaugh won’t be on the TV side, instead having announced earlier this week on his own he’d be focusing on Radio Show Limited’s audio productions for WEC shows. Le Mans is treated as a separate entity from a broadcast and production side compared to the rest of the WEC season.

Renowned for his radio calls, Hindhaugh will be in his true area of passion throughout this season, as he also is Stateside for IMSA Radio’s coverage of IMSA championships. RSL has also recently announced it will broadcast VLN coverage this season (more here via DailySportscar).

“Thankfully the busy endurance racing schedule has only a couple of clashes so that means that for most of the WEC events I will be joining the established team providing live commentary for RSL radio,” Hindhaugh said in a release.

“For the WEC events I’m covering for the RSL radio service, we’ll be adding live audio coverage of qualifying to the regular full race broadcast.”

In the WEC release, series CEO Gerard Neveu thanked Hindhaugh for what he’s brought to the TV side the last couple years while also looking forward to the new arrivals to this year’s broadcast team.

“We believe that one of the reasons for the WEC’s current success in today’s motorsport world is that we try not to rest on our laurels; we are always looking to innovate and re-energize the championship in every area.

“John Hindhaugh, who has been our lead commentator until now, has decided to return to his first love of radio commentary, and we want to thank him for the great job he has done, and for his contribution to the championship. We are sure we will have an opportunity to work together again in the future but, for this year, we are very enthusiastic about our new broadcast team and the season ahead.”

The WEC season kicks off with the Prologue test next week in Monza before the season itself starts April 16 at Silverstone.