The Grand Prix of Houston returns this weekend to NRG Park, with a new date but the same track, only smoother and, hopefully, safer. Last year, racing legend Dario Franchitti survived a dramatic crash with A.J. Foyt Racing’s Takuma Sato down the stretch that sent debris flying, injuring 13 spectators and putting an end to Franchitti’s storied career.
“It’s always sad to see a driver having to retire,” said 2006 and 2007 Houston Grand Prix champion Sébastien Bourdais. “He decided that it was a few too many concussions for him, but it wasn’t all about the course in that crash. Racing is just not very fair.”
Neither is the Grand Prix track. Last fall, event organizers only had 96 hours to construct the course between two Texans home games. Now that the race has been moved from October to June, that won’t be an issue; this time, construction crews had a full month to work on the course. “It means I get more sleep, the drivers are safer, and everybody’s a lot happier,” director of operations Martyn Thake told me.
The biggest flaw in last year’s track was a pronounced bump on turn 1 that sent drivers airborne and off balance early in the race before they figured out how to navigate around it. With the extra time to prep the track, that bump — and several other problem areas — were smoothed out and repaired.
The course itself will look the same. Starting Friday, drivers will hurtle across the park’s pavement at 180 mph, starting near the NRG Arena, jetting toward the NRG Center, swerving past the Astrodome and NRG Park (home of the Texans), cruising toward 610, and finishing back by the pit lanes near Fannin Street. That’s 1.7 miles of temporary street circuit, with 10 turns and a handful of pedestrian bridges. It’s street racing at its finest.
“It’s our best racing,” said last year’s runner-up, Will Power. “It’s aggressive, you can move people out of the way a bit easier, and the fans can explore the track.”
Longtime IndyCar fans know what to expect from road races, but what about the majority of people whose only experience of the racing series is the Indianapolis 500 and its closed oval track? “It’s pretty rough on the street, that hard pavement, and very difficult to get a feel for the car and the braking,” Bourdais said. “The big challenge is to get the car to slow down and not make mistakes. Otherwise, we’ve seen the kinds of wrecks [that can happen] out there.”
This weekend features two IndyCar races, two Pro Mazda Championship series runs, and two Mazda MX5 cup races. “There’s racing of all kinds, and cars will be on the track from 9 in the morning to 6 p.m. all three days,” said Grand Prix managing director Austin Crossley. “It’s a festival of speed, and a spectacle to behold, whether you’re a racing fan or not.”
“It’s going to be a little warm, but we’ll have ways to beat the heat,” Crossley said. “NRG Arena will be chockfull of racing expos and Shell interactive experiences for all the fans. There’s even a big screen indoors to watch the action on the track.” Kids under the age of 12 get in free with an adult.
The action on the track begins Friday morning, though it’s mostly practice sessions and qualifying laps. There’s also a Miss Grand Prix contest in the afternoon. The races begin in earnest on Saturday, with more demo laps in the morning, followed by three races back to back to back. It starts with the Mazda MX5 event at noon and concludes with the initial IndyCar race from 2-5 p.m.; Sunday follows a similar format.
French driver Bourdais will have some competition to win the event for the third time. Will Power is the IndyCar point leader halfway through the season, while Takuma Sato and Mikhail Aleshin are both top-20 drivers who have either earned poles or led races this year. Adding to the challenge is that the race won’t be held in October, as before, but the middle of summer.
“I hear about the heat, and it might be hot, but I love the place — it’s a pretty cool city,” Bourdais said. “I always have a good time. And winning some races here is never bad.