Houston Preview

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This weekend, the Verizon IndyCar Series returns to the great state of Texas for the second event in a row. The last time the series turned a wheel in competition was at Texas Motor Speedway on June 7th, which seems like it was three months ago instead of three weeks.

There has not been a ton of news from the IndyCar world in that time. I think everyone was ready to take a collective break since this was the first break since the weekend after Barber. The only real newsworthy bits came earlier this week. Sébastien Bourdais had been fined $10,000 and placed on probation for the remainder of the season, for his part in Justin Wilson’s crash at Texas. On Wednesday, both penalties were rescinded. The penalty seemed a little harsh at the time, but completely rescinding it seems odd too. Maybe more information on this will come out this weekend.

The other bit of news is very welcome to all IndyCar fans. Beginning this weekend, all practice activity for the Verizon IndyCar Series will have video streamed lived via IndyCar.com; with commentary provided by the crew of the IMS Radio Network with Paul Page and company. This was something that we got used to and took for granted up until a few years ago, when NBC halted it. Since then, we had to use our imaginations as we listened to the audio-only version of practice. The only exception was that we still got to watch practice during the month of May at Indianapolis. To those of us that like to get a jump on the race weekend – this is very good news.

But the longest break of the season is now over. There is a weekend off around the Brickyard 400 in late July and another break the week before Milwaukee. Other than that, it’s pretty non-stop through to the season finale at Fontana on Labor Day weekend.

When we first heard that the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix would be moved from early October to late June, all I could think of was heat and humidity. Then I heard that they were looking into turning the street course into a night race – as they had done in the Champ Car days. It made sense, because the weather in Houston can be brutal; but the promoter opted for racing in the heat of the day because adding temporary lighting was considered cost-prohibitive. That’s corporate buzzword-speak for too expensive.

I’ve been to Houston three times that I can think of – in the months of March, April and October. March was warm, but pleasant. April was hot and steamy, as was October. I can only imagine what the months of June through August are like there. It’s tough enough to be a fan in shorts with a cold beverage in your hand during hot muggy weather. I cannot begin to think what it’s like for drivers and crew-members in a full fire-suit and gloves in that type of environment.

Some say to not talk about the heat because it’s just whining about something you can’t control. First off, I’m not whining – because I’m not there. I’ll be watching both races from the comfort of my couch with a refrigerator very close by. Plus, you can’t ignore it because it has the potential to affect the cars, equipment, drivers and team members throughout the weekend. My hope is that the heat will not become the story of the weekend, but you can bet it will play a part in this weekend’s event.

Fortunately, the forecast looks much better than most would have thought for late June in Houston. Highs are around 90-degrees with lows in the upper 70’s. For this time of year, you couldn’t ask for much better than that, although the humidity will still be high.

As far as on-track action, the course has been smoothed out some since last year – especially the bump that pretty well did in the gearbox of Helio Castroneves, derailing his championship hopes in the process. It is still a physically demanding course. With hardly any straightaway sections, the drivers say they seem to be turning constantly.

At the risk of offending some of my Texas friends, this is not my favorite circuit on the schedule. When I think back on last year’s double-header, the two things that immediately pop into my mind are Dario Franchitti’s career-ending accident and Helio’s gearbox leaking fluid early in Sunday’s race. Neither is a pleasant thought.

The schedule will reach the official halfway point after Saturday’s race, which will be the ninth race out of eighteen. There are pretty much the same championship-related questions hanging out there as there were after the last race at Texas. Will Will Power finally break through and win his first championship after flirting with it for so many years? Can Ryan Hunter-Reay and Andretti Autosport rekindle their May magic? Will Chip Ganassi Racing have another second-half surge that saw Scott Dixon come out of nowhere to snag his third championship? Will Helio Castroneves have a strong second half and make it an all-Penske battle for the championship?

There are many more questions without championship implications, but they present interesting discussions just the same. Will Tony Kanaan continue to gel with his new team and produce a win in the second half of the season? Will Josef Newgarden shake the bad luck that has plagued him in the first half and produce that break-out first win? Speaking of bad luck; will James Hinchcliffe be able to put some of his behind him and salvage what has been a disappointing season, thus far? Will Juan Montoya continue his improvement and come up with the win that so many predicted for him before the start of the season?

Those in the Top-Three in points; Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Ryan Hunter-Reay, need to continue their surge to stay near the top and put more distance between themselves and their rivals. Those that are still in the hunt; Simon Pagenaud, Marco Andretti, Carlos Muñoz, Juan Montoya and Scott Dixon, need to make something happen quickly, while hoping for someone else to suffer misfortune in order to even be in the championship discussion.

The next five – positions nine through thirteen; Tony Kanaan, Justin Wilson, James Hinchcliffe, Sébastien Bourdais and Ryan Briscoe – are separated by a mere ten points. They are theoretically still in the hunt, but in all actuality – they are racing for year-end positions and pride at this point. They can still make a huge dent with the two remaining double-points races at Pocono and Fontana, along with strong weekends at the remaining double-header tracks of Houston and Toronto. A win would probably make their seasons at this point.

It’ll be interesting to see who comes out firing after the long break and who is still in vacation mode. A driver with a lot of momentum like Will Power, probably hated to see the break come. On the other hand, a driver like Ryan Hunter-Reay who was struggling at the break probably welcomed the chance to regroup and reload for the second half.

Love this track or hate it – there is no denying that anything can happen this weekend. But I’m going with the safe picks for these two races. I won’t go so far as to say which driver will win which race – but your two winners this weekend will both come from the Penske stable. Will Power will win one, simply because he has the hot hand. Helio Castroneves feels that this track owes him one from his disaster of last year. When Helio has that kind of motivation, he is hard to beat. We’ll see. It all starts back with the live-streamed practice at 10:00 Friday morning. It’s good to have IndyCar back.

George Phillips

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6 Responses to “Houston Preview”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    I got a kick out of NBCSN’s promo for the Houston races, touting 100 degree heat. That’s one way to punch up a race with a short history and a limited number of memorable moments, I guess. Locally, promotion for the race has been excellent. Billboards, print ads, Internet ads, and radio all bought with frequency. Television ads promoting the race have run during evening and late news, and during the NBA Finals, and the local Honda dealers have also promoted the race in their ads.

    Houston was the biggest mover in the schedule as a result of Indycar’s end-by-Labor Day rule. Despite the greater amount of track set-up time the new date provides, it was likely the preference of the promoters to keep the old date.

    On not running the races at night, there seems to be a popular perception that Champcar ran this same course at night during both of their visits. Actually, the 2007 race was run in daylight in April, it was only the May 2006 race that was run at night. Both of those races had a notable undercard draw in ALMS.
    While the cost to light the circuit (said to be mid- to high-six figures) was absolutely a factor in the decision not to race at night, another story that has been given to the local news outlets is that Indycar was not able to secure nighttime television windows on NBCSN for one or both nights. Shell-Pennzoil, Honda, and Mike Lanigan balked at the potential for a CNBC time slot. The cost story is true for certain, I know, not sure about this tv window story.

    I’ll be heading to the track shortly to bang on the gate until they open it. With rain in the forecast, I am not sure how applicable practice today will be to likely-dry Saturday and definitely dry Sunday. Action could be limited. Heat, humidity, rain, what comes, I’ll be enjoying the racing.

  2. speaking of ads, I heard an ad for Indycar on the VanPelt & Russillo ESPN radio program, something I’ve never heard before.

    weather has been milder than usual (that just means 90′s instead of 100′s) but thunderstorms may make an appearance on Saturday. so what happens if one race is cancelled–a double-header on Sunday?

    The action and competition on a twisty is totally determined by the shape of the track. Can’t they straighten a corner out or something to construct a passing zone or two? Or does that not matter inside the Shell-Pennsoil Party Suite?

    • my mistake: the ad was actually on The Dan Patrick Show, which makes sense because of his MSNBC ties.

  3. It’s hard to be really excited for a parking lot street course. Actually, there aren’t that many (5) street courses this year, but the double header format makes it feel like there are a lot more than their actually are. Last year Simona De Silvestro’s 2nd place was the most enjoyable part of the race. Of course, she’s now waiting for a Formula One ride and so with luck Newgarden has a good race or two. I hope it’s not another double win for Penske (unless Montoya wins) because that would be rather dull, and disapointing to see Penske sweep two double headers.

  4. I agree that Power will probably win one of the two. But I don’t think Penske will get the sweep.

  5. If Formula One can do Phoenix in June, IndyCar can do Houston in June. Just ignore the fact that only six cars finished. The heat and the double header format should definitely make things more interesting than the norm.

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