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

8 Comments

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: What Drivers Said after qualifying for the KOHLER Grand Prix

Leave a comment

Here’s what the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers had to say, courtesy of IndyCar Media Relations, after Saturday qualifying for the KOHLER Grand Prix (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN):

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “It’s nice when you have the car to do it. We had the speed on Friday, so to finish it off today is nice. It’s only goal one. Two races; one for pole, one for the race. We need to close it out. Verizon has been very good to us, and Team Chevy as well. Engine package has been phenomenal to get the most out of it. You see how well we work together with Team Penske and Team Chevy. We just have to be smart and get through the first couple laps. Save the tires, save some fuel and be smart if a caution comes out in the middle of the race. We’ll see what we have for tomorrow.”

MATHEUS LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “Tough qualifying today. We’ve been struggling a little bit finding the best setup for the car. We need to concentrate for tomorrow so that we have a great car for the race. It’s a long race and you never know what can happen. We will keep working, improving and doing our best and will try to have a top 10 tomorrow.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda): “We’re struggling a little bit with the reds (Firestone alternate tires) – we just didn’t find the gain like everybody else did. I’m not entirely sure, honestly. Obviously, Robbie (Wickens) is doing well, so it’s a bit of a mystery for us. We went more towards his (Wickens’) setup and the balance kind of went out the window for me. It’s weird because we’ve been able to copy and paste setups all year long between the two of us and it just didn’t work here. I feel bad for the Arrow Electronics boys – obviously, the car’s capable of more. We just didn’t get it today.”

ROBERT WICKENS (No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda): “Overall, it’s been a good weekend – we’ve still never been out of the top five in every session. Hopefully, me and the Lucas Oil boys can keep chipping away and come up with a slightly better car for the race tomorrow.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): 
“I just didn’t think we had great space to work in out there on the track. There were about five other guys before us and they are all trying to get their spacing right, as well. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just there’s a tight window for everything. Maybe we should have waved off a third lap on the black (Firestone primary) tires and got ourselves better time on the reds (Firestone alternate tires). It is what it is, though, and we only really had one lap to try and get something going. Then, we had people starting to back up in front of us and never got to show our speed. I think the PNC Bank car had enough for the Firestone Fast Six, but we’ll have to show that speed tomorrow in the race.”

ED JONES (No. 10 First Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda):
 “The guys on the First Data car made some great changes today after we struggled a little bit early on in the weekend here at Road America. That was the most confident I’ve felt with the car so far this weekend and I felt we were going in the right direction. We were capable of being in the Firestone Fast Six today, but we got held up a bit. On the upside, we have a really fast First Data car and something we can use to improve on up the grid for tomorrow.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “That was close. We were off the whole time. I gave it everything the last lap. A surprise front row. I keep getting front rows every weekend. Not the pole, but yeah, I’m pretty happy. But only five hundredths off, come on. I think I did a really neat lap. Josef (Newgarden) did a great lap. That was all I had.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): 
“I got traffic on my fast lap, but it would have just put us in the top 13, not enough to advance. The car is understeering all weekend. We tried something overnight that didn’t work, so it put us behind a session and we’re back to the car we had yesterday. It was the same car, so we were going to do the same lap time as yesterday when we tried the reds (Firestone alternate tires), but getting traffic didn’t help. But it wasn’t going to change a lot – maybe a few positions, which always helps, but we’ve got a little bit of work to do.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 GEHL Honda): “We wanted to be further up and get the GEHL Honda in the top six. We’ve started in the top six every year, but there was nothing more in the car today. For maybe the first time this year, I’m confident saying that; there was nothing more. We only lacked one-tenth (of a second) over four miles from fourth (place), but that’s what Indy car racing is now. Yeah, we qualified ninth, but when you think that a tenth of a second over four-plus miles can move you five spots, it’s crazy, but that’s the reality of Indy car. We’ve just got to try to find a little more improvement for tomorrow, make the car a little more consistent for the race, and hopefully, we can go out there and attack. I think a lot of people have a lot of questions for the race. There is no warmup this year, so we’ll see how it goes.”

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 18 Team SealMaster Honda): (About if he feels he’s in a good position to win tomorrow): “Yeah, I don’t know. I’d like to say so, but I’m not sure I believe it myself. It’s been a bit of a tough day. I thought after yesterday we thought we had everything under control, and things were looking good, and this morning we rolled out and struggled with grip and then we went into qualify and really struggled for good. I think I only did one good lap to be honest with you in Q2 on that new set of option tires. Everything was really scrappy and really difficult to put anything together. In (the Firestone Fast Six), I really didn’t get anything done properly. We tried one lap on both sets, but I’m not convinced it was the right thing to do – hindsight 20/20. Just one of those where you come out of the car and you’re not quite sure what else you should or would have done, but not super happy with the way things have gone. The guys did a really good job, but I just — yeah, I’m struggling to read anything that’s happening out there, it’s up and down, making a lot of mistakes, so don’t really feel great about it.

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 Paysafe Honda): “It’s so competitive out there. I thought we had a really good chance at doing better in qualifying, but we ended up on the wrong end of the timing sheet. We just missed making it to the second round by a few tenths, so that’s a bit disappointing. That said, tomorrow is a long race and a lot can happen. I’m confident we can move up the field and get that good result we’ve been chasing the last few races.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “We’ve been making progress throughout the weekend, little steps at a time and qualifying was our best session yet. The car is now performing within that half-second window of the front of the field. There’s always that last hundredth of time left to get, so I’m a bit annoyed that we didn’t get it, but it was still a pretty good lap. I got as much as I could out of the car. There was just a little bit of oversteer out of Turn 12 and that’s probably the half a tenth that we needed to transfer. I would have liked to have got through to the next round, but it was still a decent effort considering how much progress we’ve made.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Direct Supply Chevrolet): “Qualifying was definitely a solid improvement. It’s nice to have the Direct Supply car in the top 10 to start the race tomorrow. We’ve been making pretty big changes every session and we hadn’t really found anything that worked until qualifying. We were struggling with the front of the car in some places and the rear of the car in other places, we just had to try and tack it down a little bit. Obviously, it helped being on new tires and the reds (Firestone alternate tires), but the car has come alive – certainly a step in the right direction. To only be a tenth or so off the Firestone Fast Six, compared to where we were in practice, is a really good improvement. I’m happy with that, but we want to be higher up and we’ll try for that tomorrow.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet): “That’s not the result that we’re all here for, obviously, and I think everyone here at Carlin is disappointed with that qualifying result, but at the same time I know Max (Chilton) and I both have a lot of confidence in this team and our engineering staff. We’ll look at all of the data tonight and learn from each other and try to come up with a plan for tomorrow’s race. The nice thing is that we’re still learning and we’re still constantly making progress, so it’s not like we’re out of options. We still have a lot left to try and a lot left to learn, so we’ll just keep moving forward.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Relay Group 1001 Honda): “This weekend so far has been really good for us just confidence-wise. To show the speed that we have, I think we deserve to be in the top six – the car definitely does. I just made a mistake and just overdrove the reds (Firestone alternate tires) in the top 12 trying to make into the Firestone Fast Six. I calmed myself down and gathered it up, but I could only get us up to 11th. We have a great race car and I’m excited to see what we can do on race day.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda): “We can do a lot from fourth. It’s always disappointing when you lead your two groups and miss out on the pole, but it’s so close. It’s amazing that around a four-mile track, it’s so tight. It’s just a testament to get to the championship, but huge hats off to the whole NAPA Know How team. We really struggled yesterday afternoon and made some good decisions overnight that paid off.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “We didn’t test here, so we were a bit behind the 8-ball, but we made the right changes and I think we put a good effort out today. I was hoping to go one better at practice and be P2, but starting third is somewhere we can work from tomorrow in the race. It’s going to be interesting with no warmup tomorrow and trying to get the right setup on the race car, but it’s the same for everybody. We have an idea with where we are with older tires, so we’ll try and estimate where we need to be with the setup and put our best effort out there. To fight at it from third is a good thing, so we can do it from there.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “It was definitely a good day. The entire team worked extremely well. The No. 30 boys always have, but it is great to give them back a nice position in qualifying. We were just four hundredths (of a second) off from the top six (in Round 2) and that shows how competitive the field is. I’m extremely happy to start seventh, which is the best position here so far. It’s a long race. We believe we have a strong car for the race, so I’m looking forward to having a strong result.”

ALFONSO CELIS JR. (No. 32 Juncos Racing Chevrolet): “Today we had no issues, which was important. Yesterday was for sure a setback, as we needed to run the whole day so that we could experiment with the red (alternate) Firestone tires and the softer compound. So not being able to run on the red tires yesterday really did not help our qualifying effort today. It is what it is at this point, so we will come back tomorrow and be ready to run a good race.”

MAX CHILTON (No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet): “Even though the results might not have shown it, I think we made a lot of progress here today at Road America. We definitely closed the gap from the beginning of the weekend and I really felt like I got everything out of the No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet that I could. With us starting where we are tomorrow, we’ll have the freedom to try a completely different strategy, and hopefully, we can come away from a track I love with a decent result.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “Yet another tough qualifying session for us as we search to find the speed we need to get. We’re going to take a look overnight, and hopefully, we can figure something out for the race. Hopefully, we set ourselves up for a fun race and get to pass a lot of cars.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 U.S. Concrete / Curb Honda): “We’ve been slipping backward ever since Practice 1 on the time sheets and just missed it. We’re a little bit loose there. I don’t think I got the most out of Lap 1 and we’re outside looking in by three tenths (of a second), so it’s not like we were that close. Hopefully, we’re better with (tire degradation) than we were with new tires. The race is obviously a different pace, but you still want to start further up than 15th.”

Follow@KyleMLavigne