Photo: John Cote/INDYCAR

Tracks We Want in IndyCar Part 5: Grand Prix of Houston

By Josh Farmer, IndyCar Reporter

Author’s note: This is part of a 10-part series discussing tracks around the world that I feel would be a good fit for the Verizon IndyCar Series. The opinions here are expressed solely of the author and not necessarily of the Motorsports Tribune.

While two races in any given market can over-saturate the market, the state of Texas could handle two with an additional race in the city of Houston.

CART first came to the streets of downtown Houston in 1998. The race is best remembered for an altercation between Team Kool Green teammates Paul Tracy and Dario Franchitti. Tracy and Franchitti were racing for the lead on lap 48 when the two collided in Turn 6.

The collision eliminated Tracy from the race, but the drama didn’t stop there. The Canadian had a very heated exchange with team owner Barry Green on the radio. The confrontation got even uglier when Tracy made his way back to the paddock and came to fist to cuffs with his owner.

Franchitti won the race while Tracy was suspended from the opening round of the upcoming 1999 season for his actions.

CART raced in Space City until 2002 when construction near the race course curtailed the event. The series returned to Houston in 2006, accompanied by the American Le Mans Series, on a 1.7-mile circuit in the parking lot of NRG Park, with a portion of the circuit circling the famed Astrodome.

The new race was also unique as it was run under the lights.

Sebastien Bourdais went on to win both rounds under the Champ Car banner. The race was set for a 2008 running, but Champ Car’s merger with IndyCar left Houston out in the cold.

In the years following, IndyCar and promoter Mi-Jack promotions remained in close talks to revive the event, but it wasn’t until October 2013 when the race finally returned as a doubleheader with Shell and Pennzoil sponsoring.

The return race weekend was one to forget for a number of reasons. A massive bump on the front stretch was discovered on the first day of practice which shuffled the weekend’s schedule multiple times and gave drivers havoc. The opening race was won by Scott Dixon which saved his championship hopes as title rival Helio Castroneves had a gearbox failure caused partly by the rough track surface.

A massive accident on the final lap involving Dario Franchitti and Takuma Sato marred the second race. Franchitti became airborne and flew into the catch fencing, which injured a handful of spectators. Franchitti himself suffered career-ending injuries in the accident.

For 2014, the race was moved to June as part of IndyCar’s Labor Day schedule re-alignment and to not conflict with the NFL’s Houston Texans schedule, as the track was run in the NRG Stadium’s parking lot.

Track officials fixed the track surface issues, but the searing Houston heat and humidity resulted in a massive drop in attendance. The promoter explored the return of lights, but nothing came of it.

The set of races made up for the previous year’s dismal showing with a fantastic turnaround. Rain plagued the opening race which resulted in one of the craziest races in IndyCar history. Takuma Sato was the car to beat early but crashed with the lapped car of Mikhail Aleshin. Team owner and Houston native A.J. Foyt was angry with the incident and gave a memorable interview after the crash.

A smart strategy by none other than Dale Coyne Racing played into virtual unknown rookie Carlos Huertas’ hands. An accident between Graham Rahal and Tony Kanaan on a one-lap restart ended the race and Huertas took the win.

Simon Pagenaud won Sunday’s race, which was much less eventful.

Talks between IndyCar and Mi-Jack Promotions fizzled out in the months following and the race was dropped from the calendar for 2015. Mi-Jack even explored moving the race along with the Shell and Pennzoil sponsorship to the Circuit of the Americas or to an airport circuit on the Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base, but neither never idea came to be.

Why return?

Houston is also the fourth most populous city in the United States with 2.196 million people and many companies are headquartered there.

While the parking lot of NRG Park is not the most scenic setting around, the 1.7-mile street course did produce some good racing when the track held up.

The crowds were good in the Champ Car days and the initial October race in the Verizon IndyCar Series saw a good crowd.

The tricky part here is having two races in Texas. Eddie Gossage, president of Texas Motor Speedway, was not shy about disapproving of two races in Texas. Houston and the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex are somewhat similar markets, their 200 miles of separation can allow the two to coexist.

Scheduling the race in the summer can be rough given the hot and humid climate of Houston. With the Houston Texans using the parking lot for their home games, that gives very little room to work with in September and October.

The summer didn’t work in 2014 so trying that again would be insanity. Champ Car’s spring date worked fine with and without lights so that seems to be the ideal time.

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Josh Farmer joined the media center in 2012 after first discovering his love of IndyCar racing in 2004 at Auto Club Speedway. He has been an accredited member of the IndyCar media center since 2014 and also contributes to along with The Motorsports Tribune.

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