Houston IndyCar weekend rebounds in a big way after 2013 trials (VIDEO)

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It’s fair to say that heading into this weekend, Houston had a bit to prove as an event on the Verizon IndyCar Series calendar.

A trying first weekend back on the calendar last October was not without its challenges. And in theory, a doubleheader the last weekend of June for this year shouldn’t have improved things.

But following the two races that made up the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston, it’s definitely easier to say this was a much smoother, better second year than the first.

The weekend this time around was not without its speed bumps and question marks. The heat and humidity did make things uncomfortable, particularly on Sunday.

And the biggest misstep of the weekend from an organizational standpoint came during Sunday morning’s qualifying, when two men somehow were able to run across a hot track from one side to the other just prior to Turn 6. Per this Autosport report, INDYCAR and track officials said they’d work on a fix.

Putting those two aside, otherwise, the $1 million in investments and upgrades put in by the event organizers seemed to pay dividends. The M.D Anderson Cancer Center Speedway at NRG Park circuit was still bumpy, but not nearly as rocky and craterous as it had been last October. Fortunately the new catch fencing enhancements didn’t need to be crash tested.

And the races? Smashingly entertaining, baby. Between various strategies, weather conditions, a flood of passes, penalties and controversies and a vintage, cursing A.J. Foyt, IndyCar’s pair of races had everything you could ask for and then some.

Last year, Mike Conway dominated race one in Detroit coming in off the couch driving Dale Coyne’s beloved yet perpetually underfunded second car, and the IndyCar world collectively asked, “How the hell did that just happen?”

Saturday, an unheralded 23-year-old Colombian rookie named Carlos Huertas – better known as “TBA” just five days before St. Petersburg – managed to bag his first career win in a canny, mature drive beyond his years in the beloved yet perpetually underfunded second Dale Coyne car. And again, the IndyCar world collectively asked, “How the hell did that just happen?”

As he did in Detroit race two last year, Simon Pagenaud again won race two in Houston. It was yet another sign the Frenchman must be considered among IndyCar’s elite drivers at the time being, as his already high stock continues to climb in the paddock.

Behind them, the fight for the rest of the top five was seriously entertaining. It was a battle of generations as Juan Pablo Montoya, back in IndyCar and adding to the spice of the series, fought tooth and nail with rookie Jack Hawksworth – the Englishman was all of eight and nine years old when JPM swept through CART in 1999 and 2000 like a storm through “tornado alley.”

This is why IndyCar is brilliant at the moment. You run through the stats and the level of competition is off the charts. You see the racing and wonder how much better can it get. You hear the excitement of the commentators in the NBCSN booth, just adding to and enhancing what was already a great show on track.

When an event at Houston, which is by no means a classic circuit, delivers the level of awesomeness that this weekend did, it speaks volumes of the caliber of racing IndyCar can put on at a single event right now.

It also helped to redeem the event, which rebounded nicely in 2014 after its 2013 return to the calendar.

IndyCar’s ‘Phoenix’ flying into 2023 season: Romain Grosjean enjoying the pilot’s life

IndyCar Romain Grosjean pilot
Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment
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PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – The IndyCar driver known as “The Phoenix” already has taken flight before the 2023 season, and newly licensed pilot Romain Grosjean also got a head start on the opener.

Fulfilling a dream several years in the making, the Andretti Autosport plunged into aviation training over the offseason. Since beginning with online studying last August, Grosjean quickly progressed to earning his licenses for multiengine planes and instrument ratings while completing 115 hours of flight time.

He has landed twice at Albert Whitted Airport, whose primary runway also doubles as the front straightaway on the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg street course.

“Just to land on the start-finish line, that was pretty cool,” Grosjean said during IndyCar Preseason Content Days ahead of the Feb. 2-3 test at The Thermal Club. “The air traffic control guy was like, “Yeah, left on Acre Five, turn, and then back. I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s the last corner of the racetrack, I’ll take it and go back to the pit lane. He was like, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, that’s true.’ So it was quite funny.”

Grosjean, 36, said he had wanted to become a pilot since he was 30 but was discouraged by Europe’s complicated and time-consuming licensing process (“to go to ground school twice a week, and with our life, it’s impossible”). He was inspired again last year by (now former) teammate Alexander Rossi, who flew to some 2022 races after earning his license a couple of years ago.

“I thought that was pretty cool,” said Grosjean, who had grown “bored of waiting in the airports.”

He plans to fly to nearly all the races this year (“if the weather is good enough, I’ll be flying”) and jokes about being “commercial by the end of the year, so then I can take Roger (Penske). Roger can pay me to fly him around to races if things go bad with racing.”

Grosjean’s social media has been filled with posts about his new hobby, which afforded him the opportunity recently to take his wife to Key West for lunch from their home in the Miami area. The trip took 37 minutes there and 41 minutes on return and highlighted why Grosjean loves flying: “Freedom. Freedom to go anywhere you want, anytime you want. It’s the beauty of it. We can go to the Bahamas for a day if we want to. Anywhere. I think that’s just great to know that you can do whatever you want.”

It’s reminiscent of the cross-country trip across the Midwest in an RV that Grosjean took with his family during the summer of his 2021 rookie season.

“There’s one thing that I told my kids, and I told my friend about America, and for me, that’s the biggest difference between Europe and here, is here everything is possible,” said Grosjean (whose “Phoenix” nickname was derived from a brush with death in his final Formula One start). “If you have the wish, if you give yourself the possibility of doing it, everything is possible. It is different in Europe. Much more boundaries on the way. Much more steps that you need to do in a certain order. But if you want to be extraordinary (in the United States), if you want to do something different, you don’t need to do those steps because you can work through.

“Yeah, I like doing things, and when I do them, I like doing them well. But here I think just the opportunity of driving the RV, flying planes, for my kids to do whatever they want to do, we love that here. Yeah, it’s been the best discovery for us.”

The Swiss-born Frenchman already has flown himself to a race this year, jetting up the Florida coast for his Rolex 24 at Daytona debut last month. It was his debut as a Lamborghini factory driver, and his new deal will continue with the Twelve Hours of Sebring and possibly the Petit Le Mans while he also helps develop the automaker’s new hybrid prototype (LMDh) for next year.

Grosjean, who finished a disappointing 13th in the 2022 points standings with one podium for Andretti in his first full season, said IndyCar will remain his priority in 2024.

But he hopes the IndyCar schedule will afford racing in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship endurance races and perhaps another his longest plane flight yet — a return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

“I’ll keep my fingers crossed like that we get the weekend off from IndyCar,” said Grosjean, noting that 10 IndyCar drivers were in the Rolex 24. “I think it would make a lot of sense. I think for both series it’s amazing. If we can get Le Mans, it’s also amazing because it’s just cool.

“I remember Mario flying across the Atlantic doing Monaco and the Indy 500, and those guys, they were racing everywhere, Formula 3, Formula 2, Formula 1. They were doing the races in opening of the Formula 1 race, and I think that’s very cool for us. So yeah, looking forward to the project. There’s going to be a lot of development coming on. By the time we finish the IndyCar season, the LMDh will be here in the States, and that’s when I’m going to spend a lot of time on it.”