Thoughts and Observations on the 2013 IndyCar Houston Grand Prix

Where do you start with the IndyCar Houston Grand Prix weekend? The complaining from fans began early and continued unabated throughout the weekend.  While some of it was over the top, not all of it was unwarranted; to say that it was a troubled weekend would be putting it politely.  It may not have been a flawless success but I don’t see why it should be pulled off of the schedule for 2014 like many seem to be calling for.

Before you read any further, if you are easily offended you may want to quit reading this post now.  I don’t plan on apologizing for the next paragraph.  Rant mode activated.

There are those among IndyCar fans who simply hate street course races and wish for all of them to go away.  These fans have to be realistic.  Ovals and natural terrain road courses just aren’t drawing the big crowds for IndyCar, the street courses are.  If that’s what it takes to get feet and eyeballs to the events, that’s what it takes.  You can’t put a gun to people’s heads and force them to travel to ovals and road courses like die hard fans do.  If you put the track in the middle of a city, you put the race right smack in the middle of where the people are and casual fans and the curious are more likely to attend – and that’s what the sport needs.  To the die hards that are constantly complaining about the street courses, I’m sorry – but this is what I have to say to you:

Quit complaining and enjoy the IndyCar racing we have before there’s no IndyCar racing at all to watch.

Rant mode deactivated.

Now that I’ve got my rant out of the way, here are my observations from the IndyCar weekend at Houston:

  • Why do you make the first weekend at a new track a double header weekend?  Making the Houston weekend a double header weekend simply compounded most all of the other problems there were.  For the first year, making it a single race weekend and allowing more practice time for all of the series involved would have made it easier to get in qualifying and still have practice while working around the track issues that weren’t necessarily unforeseen.  Once first year kinks are worked out and you determine whether or not the track is too physical for the drivers, then you make the decision whether or not it’s going to be a double header race.
  • It just seems that there was a lack of homework on the organizers’ and series’ part going into the weekend.  I understand there was a short build period but a problem like the big bump that required grinding and caused so much problem could have been discovered before the sessions began.
  • I’m not sure that the Houston track is a good track for IndyCars IF the surface can’t be smoothed out.  It is terribly bumpy, even for the Pirelli World Challenge cars.   The course preview that Wally Dallenbach did in the TV coverage made it look like they were racing on a washboard dirt road.  I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the mechanical issues the IndyCar teams dealt with this weekend were a result of the very rough, very bumpy track.  Hopefully that is something the organizers can address before the 2014 race.
  • Communication seemed abysmal.  For some reason, it seemed the communication between IndyCar and the media (and therefore the fans) and between IndyCar and itself was lacking at Houston.  When track conditions forced changes in the schedule and in procedures, the word didn’t seem to get out quickly enough.  Media members at the track didn’t seem get the word about the changes so they could tell fans until the last minute or too late.  At one point, IMS Radio didn’t seem to get the word about changes to the procedures during the Saturday qualifying session.  On Sunday, IndyCar’s right hand couldn’t even talk to its left hand to properly set the field when qualifying was cancelled!  As a result, the wrong driver was declared the pole sitter and went through all of the press for it before they realized that a mistake was made.  That should not have happened in a professional sport. Quite frankly, it made it seem like amateur hour.  IndyCar MUST learn from that episode and NOT let it happen again.
  • All of the above aside, the racing itself wasn’t all that bad.  Yes there were a lot of yellows, but sometimes that’s just part of street course racing.  I thought there was pretty good passing throughout in both races, even if it wasn’t always at the front.  The Pirelli World Challenge GT/GTS race on Sunday morning in changing conditions proved that Houston course can offer great racing.  Before we throw this event off of the calender, let’s give them a chance to learn from this year and fix things.  If they learn from this weekend, things can and should be better.

Just as the ALMS race at VIR was marred by a scary crash, the Sunday IndyCar race at Houston was marred by an even scarier one.  Takuma Sato got loose on the last lap and when Dario Franchitti tried to avoid him, he climbed the rear of Sato’s car and went spinning into the catch fence:

As you can see from this video, it was a scary crash not only because of the damage done to Franchitti’s car and the fencing, but because of the amount of debris that was sent flying toward the adjacent grandstand.  Franchitti sustained a concussion, a broken ankle, and a back fracture that won’t require surgery.  13 in the grandstand and adjacent to the track were injured but thankfully only 2 required transport to a hospital.  All concerned are luck it wasn’t worse than it turned out to be.

Folks, I don’t know what the answer is but there HAS to be a better way of making barriers and catch fencing.  Not just IndyCar, but motor sport in general CANNOT survive another Le Mans 1955.  I don’t care who takes the lead, whether it’s the FIA, IndyCar, NASCAR, or whoever – but motor sport needs to put its best and brightest minds on this before luck runs out.

I want to end this post on a positive note, though:  this event has potential.  Were mistakes made?  No doubt.  Can the problems be corrected?  Sure they can.  I think we should give the organizers, promoter, and IndyCar the chance to learn from this past weekend and make the changes needed to make the Houston race a success.  You just can’t give any race one chance to succeed.  When the first trip back to Milwaukee didn’t work out well, the die hards clamored to give them a few years to make it work.  Supporters of the road course race at IMS are asking for the same thing.  It would be hypocritical not to give Houston the same opportunity.

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