ANALYSIS: IndyCar's Grand Prix of Houston

ANALYSIS: IndyCar's Grand Prix of Houston

IndyCar

ANALYSIS: IndyCar's Grand Prix of Houston

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A weekend like the one that just took place in Houston can easily drain one’s enthusiasm for the sport. And, admittedly, it took a few days to digest and process all of it before making any attempts to analyze what happened.

Early emotions ranged from feeling embarrassed for the fans and sponsors who sat idle four hours Friday morning as the track surface issue was addressed, to frustration as the pitfalls that delayed opening day at the Baltimore Grand Prix for two consecutive years were seemingly ignored as the Houston track was assembled. By the time the final lap of the Shell & Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston was complete, another round of emotions swept through the facility as fear, anger and concern had manifested in many different ways.

Voices and engines quickly fell silent as replays of Dario Franchitti’s troubling crash were shown. And with the sight of debris, a wheel, and large sections of fencing flying into the grandstands, it was hard to keep some of the darker fears associated with such a violent accident at bay. Leaving the track later that night felt like a release an overdue end to what had become a depressing and prolonged experience.

There were positives that took place over the three days in Texas, but the lasting memories of the event will likely be attached to the negatives.

Before delving into the significant shortcomings to discuss, it’s worth looking at some of the noteworthy performances and happenings that might have been lost in the margins.

BADASS+BADASS TEAM

Let’s take a moment to gush about Justin Wilson, aka Badass, for his epic march up the championship standings. Dale Coyne Racing’s finest put on another of his patented why-hasn’t-he-been-hired-by-one-of-the-bigger-teams performances over the weekend, taking a third-place finish on Saturday, his fourth podium visit of 2013, and claimed fourth on Sunday.

It also marked his fourth consecutive finish inside the top-4, a trend started at Sonoma. Wilson has made an impressive jump from ninth in the standings leaving Mid-Ohio on August 3, to seventh after Sonoma and sixth after Baltimore. He arrived at Houston with Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay directly ahead of him in fifth, and RHR’s teammate Marco Andretti in fourth, proceeded to draw down the gap after Houston Round 1 and leapfrogged the pair in Round 2.

Sadly, Wilson can only improve one more position in the standings at the season finale. Championship leader Scott Dixon, and Helio Castroneves, who sits 25 points behind Dixie in second, have built a lead the Englishman cannot overcome. Simon Pagenaud, however, is within striking distance in third place.

Given Wilson’s impressive oval form in recent years, including a win at Texas in 2012 and a fifth at the Indy 500 in May, Bad Ass could track down Pagenaud at Fontana. The Frenchman is also an emerging threat on the ovals, and actually has a better average finishing position this year (9.0) compared to Wilson (9.4) at the art of turning left.

With Badass and Pagenaud so evenly matched, Wilson obviously needs to separate himself at Fontana in order to make one final pass in the standings, and with oval specialists Andretti and RHR directly behind him, it’s also possible for him to lose ground. It’s hard to say how he’ll fare in the finale, but you can count on Wilson and super engineer Bill Pappas to go for the jugular.

HE’S HUMAN AFTER ALL

The Houston race confirmed, for the first time since Sonoma, that Helio Castroneves is a mere mortal.

Team Penske’s championship leader had a relatively unremarkable run going at Sonoma while his main rival Scott Dixon was, until that fateful pit stop, in a position to win the race and draw down the Brazilian’s lead. With Dixie’s ensuing penalty for contact with one of Will Power’s Penske crew members, Helio’s day was inexplicably turned into another opportunity to pad his lead over the Kiwi. Dixon finished 15, Castroneves took seventh.

It happened again the following weekend in Baltimore when Dixon, once again in a position to win (or at least land on the podium), had Castroneves covered on pace until that fateful restart ended his day in a rather abrupt manner against the wall. Dixon: 19th. Castroneves: ninth. To have it happen once was a blessing, but two times in a span of seven days? Had to be divine intervention.

If you believe in karma, Houston’s double-header was a perfect follow-up to Sonoma and Baltimore for Dixon, and looking at how badly Helio’s weekend went, it felt like some form of universe-balancing phenomenon took place.
A dismal qualifying performance for Round 1 was met with gearbox issues that struck in the first few laps for the three-time Indy 500 winner. Dixon: 1st. Castroneves: 18th.

The rained-out Round 2 qualifying session gave Castroneves an advantage, ode to the grid being set by Entrants’ points, which placed him first on the grid. Dixon, starting alongside Castroneves, watched as his rival led him away from the starting lights, but broken transmission mountings forced the Penske driver into an early retirement. Dixon: second. Castroneves: 23rd.

Helio’s 49-point lead became a 25-point deficit in 48 hours, and now the series heads to a track where both drivers should excel. Will the universe tip the scale in the direction of Dixie or Helio, or will the two be able to fight for the title without interruption? Let’s hope their engines hold together, tires maintain pressure, gearboxes shift, wings stay attached and the other drivers in the field can keep from punting them into the barriers.

After the wildly unpredictable season we’ve witnessed, an old fashioned sprint to the finish in Fontana would be a welcome conclusion to the championship.

BROKEN RECORD

It crosses multiple Indy car sanctioning bodies. It spans decades and unites a variety of eras. It has a membership body comprised of numerous CEOs, managers and directors. And like a broken record that skips and pops and crackles to the delight of no one, it’s time for our lone open-wheel racing series to change its tune: Indy car racing must stop embarrassing itself on a national stage.

For all of the shortcomings found in sports car racing, the American Le Mans Series and the Grand-Am Rolex Series rarely find themselves as the butt of jokes within the racing community (except for the DeltaWing, that is). Yet recently, and regardless of whether it was the Indy Racing League, Champ Car or the IndyCar Series, people expect open-wheel racing to be the punchline.

It isn’t a surprise when something goes wrong. There’s no shock, no awe, no we-must-be-better-than-this plan that is crafted and successfully implemented. It’s the friend who keeps getting pulled over for DUIs and refuses to go to rehab.

What took place in Houston was, despite every assurance to the contrary, what many of us assumed would happen. After checking in with the track construction process on Wednesday night, the news that came back was encouraging everything was on time and going according to plan. That changed Thursday night, as IndyCar president of competition Derrick Walker told RACER, and the chance for IndyCar to make a positive impression on a new city one that had hosted previous open-wheel sanctioning bodies, but never the IndyCar Series was dashed.

The play-by-play of everything that went wrong, from the track surface issue to further delays on Saturday to a mix-up on who the correct polesitter for Sunday’s race happened to be doesn’t need to be rehashed. Amid the errors and issues, fans and even some within the paddock wanted to know where to lay the blame for the poor start to the revived Houston event.

While those in charge can be singled out, the more pressing issue, at least for this writer, falls on the procedures, and in this case, the lack of modern practices and policies the series, its promoters and any of the other parties involved with creating an event seem to follow. Whether it’s a street course or a permanent facility, Houston should have people asking what kind of pre-event checklist and overall ownership of an event the series holds.

In reference to Houston, an event that was promoted by IndyCar team owner Mike Lanigan, and designed and run by Martyn Thake’s Motorsports Consulting Services team, it’s also worth asking what kind of influence the series has over construction and how much it manages the build of the track from the moment the first barrier is installed to the final track inspection.

As it was described by Walker, the current process involves limited ownership by the series until a promoter and their chosen design/construction team completes their job. The series, to be clear, does have someone there during the process, and is heavily involved, but there’s a difference between being part of the process and being fully responsible for the process. Again, as Walker paints the picture, the series is like a stakeholder in the event, but doesn’t wield the power or influence to dictate how things are done.

He’s vowed to change that for 2014, and is the first from the current administration to make a we-must-be-better-than-this statement. And without that crucial shift in how the series views its role in its events, more Houston’s will happen.

If we rewind the tape, Baltimore 2011 should have been an eye opener for the series. A rushed construction process left the series to hope all would be well when practice commenced, yet the presence of what amounted to a jump at the railroad tracks on Pratte Street ground opening day to a halt until a temporary chicane could be added. To those who witnessed Champ Car’s first trip to downtown San Jose for its inaugural street race in 2005, Baltimore was a case of railroad track dj vu:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bnV7JzMU9XA?rel=0&w=640&h=480%5D;

Yes, a different Indy car sanctioning body was on the hook for the San Jose oversight, but it was hard to believe Champ Car’s cautionary tale had been forgotten so quickly. Because of the hasty track build, sending an Indy car, Indy Lights car or similar across the tracks prior to Friday at Baltimore in 2011 was not carried out, nor was it a mandatory step in the process.

Just as airplane manufacturers send new models to taxi up and down the runway to do systems checks before attempting to fly, one would think sending formula cars up and down uneven stretches on a street course prior to the start of the event would also be a common practice. As we’ve learned, it is not.

The same blind faith was placed in the promoters and track builders to rectify the Baltimore bump-jump issue for 2012, and with the vocal support from some IndyCar drivers ones that believed they could go across the tracks without a chicane if more grinding was done the series found out those beliefs were wrong. It was only after practice had started and drivers like Simon Pagenaud were shown trying to execute a moon launch on Pratte Street that the issue was (re)discovered.

The broken record played again, track activities were halted, a chicane was added back in and the event resumed a few hours later. Baltimore 2013, as you might recall, went off without any issues. The chicane was installed prior to practice and after two years of repeating the same mistakes, the third try in Charm City went according to plan.
There were no railroad tracks this time, and the build schedule for Houston was even shorter than Baltimore, but with its reputation as a street course that contained some nasty bumps, it would have been reasonable to expect some form of surface issue to be revealed ones that needed grinding.

The promoters, followed by IndyCar, were surprised to find Houston’s dips and bumps the night before practice was scheduled to start, which set off a scramble to find the necessary grinding equipment to try and address the issue.
The entire ordeal speaks to a fuzzy preparation, management and oversight process. It speaks to IndyCar, once again, being caught off-guard. Same old process, same old result.

Just as new staff members have been added to the competition department to look after the technical side of the sport, would it be worthwhile to add a “track manager” position going forward? Someone who rewrites the entire process for the how the series controls its events, and then manages the entire project to completion? From setting the build order, to verifying the racing surface, to ensuring repair equipment is onsite, to doing safety inspections, the buck needs to stop with IndyCar. The current process, where event management and control is passed around like a hot potato, is no longer acceptable.

COLLATERAL DAMAGE

Even after repeated grinding, Houston’s bump-jump continued to take a toll on cars, wearing out the skid plates affixed to all of the open-wheel cars that lapped the track. The harsh landing did the most damage to the Pro Mazda cars, as the series reported four rotor housings had been cracked by the end of Saturday’s first race.

The Pro Mazdas, which use twin-rotor Mazda Renesis engines, are certainly unique, and in regular engine parlance, four engine blocks were cracked by the pounding they took at the bump-jump. Andretti Autosport, whose driver Matthew Brabham won his 13th race of the season and clinched the title last weekend, saw so much damage done to the engine in one of its other cars, the team was forced to purchase a new unit to continue racing on Sunday.

The punishing 1.7-mile track also bit Helio Castroneves, as we noted, and some IndyCar teams were so concerned by what they found during chassis inspections after Saturday’s race, they stayed late into the night replacing a wide array of components. The Ganassi team reported staying until 1 a.m. to make wholesale replacements strictly as a precaution. Having to safeguard drivers against the track surface itself seems like an unreasonable situation in 2013, doesn’t it?

THE SCHEDULE

As one friend mentioned via e-mail after Houston, IndyCar, along with its promoters, might consider leaving more breathing room on the schedule during a first-time event. Knowing that delays tend to happen when IndyCar visits a new street course, loading three days of racing with an endless array of series is only going to result in lost track time for the support events.

Houston featured two IndyCar events, Indy Lights, a pair of Pro Mazda races, two USF2000 races, separate Pirelli World Challenge TC/TCB and GT/GTS races and a Mazda MX-5 Cup event. Add in all of the practices, qualifying sessions and warm-ups, not to mention pace car rides and IndyCar two-seater rides, and even the slightest delay would have disrupted the schedule.

The MX-5 Cup cars which this writer admits to being completely unaware of their presence at Houston had sessions scheduled from 7:20-7:50 p.m. on Friday and 7:30-7:50 p.m. on Saturday. Sunset fell over Houston at approximately 7 p.m. both nights And after the barriers were damaged in the last-lap crash on Sunday, the MX-5 Cup cars had their race canceled. No one will argue the reason for the cancellation, but with such crappy session times, they got the shaft from start to finish and packed up without turning a lap in anger.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to over-serve the fans, but holding that kind of schedule for the second year of an event might be a better practice to follow.

THE LAYOUT

With the aforementioned delays, drivers were not afforded the chance to do a track walk at Houston, and as they found once practice began, the 2013 version of the course was altered, pushing numerous curbs out to points that made passing much harder. Drivers who competed at Houston during its stint as a Champ Car venue in 2006-2007 were especially disappointed, and asked why it had been altered.

That question remains unanswered, yet in the wake of Dario Franchitti barrier-breaching crash, the most pertinent track layout question of how and where grandstands are placed was broached by IndyCar’s Derrick Walker after a driver shared this observation after the accident.

“We’re going through Turn 5 as fast as we can; it isn’t a straight, but we treat it like a straight going through fourth, fifth, sixth gear as it curves around to the right, and it’s pretty narrow we have a lot of steering input going on, so why would you put a grandstand on the outside where all the debris, or worse, a car is going to fly if there’s a crash,” he asked.

Cars zoom around the corner to the right, physics tell us those cars would fly to the left in case of an accident, so don’t put the grandstands on the outside, right? It makes perfect sense, but it was, as often happens after a crash, another issue to be revealed through hindsight.

The issues with the catch fencing being breached is a separate issue (see Robin Miller’s discussion with Tony Cotman here), yet moving fans to the inside of any stretch that has the characteristics of a Houston Turn 5 seems like another wise adjustment to make for the future.

“We can suggest where the stands are placed,” said Walker, “but the promoter has the final say on where they are located. It’s another item I will be looking into for next year.”

Moving stands from the outside to the inside isn’t feasible at every street course due to some of the pre-existing structures in place, but it’s a topic that deserves a serious re-think in light of the near disaster that took place last weekend.

STAY CLASSY, CABLE & TABLOIDS
The Cable News Network was quick to alert its Twitter followers to Franchitti’s crash on Sunday, and as one might expect, they went for the obvious angle with “Ashley Judd’s ex in horrific Indy car crash in Houston today” as the first alert.

CNN wasn’t alone in the Hollywood cash grab as other outlets used Judd’s name as the hook to attract readers. To be fair, Judd compounded the issue by taking to Twitter and giving the impression she was making a panicked dash to Houston to hold a bedside vigil for the Scot. Franchitti, who was already surrounded by friends and loved ones (and is in a relationship he recently made public), then became the subject of tabloid rumor and gossip.

Radar Online and The National Enquirer eventually jumped in, with Radar’s headline of “The Crash That Saved A Marriage: Ashley Judd Reunites With Husband Dario Franchitti After Horror Racing Smash” moving the bar from desperate to ridiculous.
MISCELLANEOUS NOTES AND OBSERVATIONS

Tristan Vautier tore up a lot of equipment on Friday and Saturday. A significant crash in qualifying for Round 1, followed by a meeting with the barrier when he tried to thread the needle between the stalled car of James Hinchcliffe and the right side wall also parked the French rookie. One might have expected the reigning Indy Lights series champion to play it safe on Sunday especially with another starting position on the right side of the grid but Vautier was unfazed, hugging the wall to pick off a number of cars on the run down to Turn 2. It’s easy to like the kid’s uncompromising approach, even if his team owners have to wince every now and then.

Graham Rahal and his new engineer Neil Fife continue to make solid progress. The young American hasn’t seen a massive up-tick in his finishing positions since Fife joined the team at Mid-Ohio, but a run to seventh in Houston Round 1 did mark his best result since Iowa in June.

Despite the progress Rahal and Fife have made, the sister Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing car of James Jakes pipped Rahal in both races, taking sixth to Graham’s seventh on Saturday and 17th to Rahal’s 18th on Sunday.

Indy 500 runner-up Carlos Munoz sat powerless during Saturday’s Indy Lights race as his Andretti Autosport car came to a halt during a caution while running third. He’s close to landing a full-time IndyCar Series drive with the team, but still maintains his interest in claiming the Lights title (and the advancement check that comes with it). The Lights championship will likely be decided between Schmidt Peterson Racing teammates (and rookies) Sage Karam and Gabby Chaves at Fontana, although with 50 points on offer, SPM’s Jack Hawksworth (-35) and Munoz (-36) are still in contention.

Speaking of Hawksworth, the RACER columnist was somewhat frank in his assessment of his performance last weekend. To say the rookie showed room for improvement in his decision making would be an understatement (read the race report here).

Simon Pagenaud needed to have a great weekend to keep his title hopes alive, but settled for a good one as he drove hard but could not overcome the balance issues which made moving to the front an impossible task.

After RACER’s Robin Miller broke the news last week that Go Daddy has chosen to depart Andretti Autosport at the end of the season, it was somewhat ironic to see the company add branding that read “It’s Go Time” to James Hinchcliffe’s car at Houston

Simona! A string of four consecutive top-10 finishes since Sonoma is exactly what Ms. De Silvestro has needed, and her podium on Saturday, despite being aided by a strategy call from Team Penske that took Will Power out of podium contention, was well deserved. Elsewhere under the KV Racing tent, her teammate, Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan, has failed to finish inside the top-10 since Sonoma.

Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing’s Josef Newgarden maintained his mojo after finishing second at Baltimore, taking fifth on Saturday at Houston, and credited a kitten named MJ he met during an animal shelter visit in Baltimore for his career-best performance. Newgarden capped off the Houston weekend by adopting his good luck charm (who he’s since renamed Simba) upon returning home through his association with the Best Friends Animal Society.

Round 1 winner Scott Dixon, who was fined after venting his feelings about Race Director Beaux Barfield at Sonoma, took to the podium on Saturday and promptly dedicated his race win to Beaux

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