|Dario Franchitti gets up into the catch fence on the last lap|
It was not IndyCar’s finest moment.
Sure, it was encouraging to see a corporate heavyweight get behind The Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston. And when the track actually was green, the quality of racing was on par with what we’ve come to expect from the racy DW 12.
Still, whether it was the litany of caution periods throughout the weekend, the problems with the racing surface which caused delays both Friday and Saturday, three fumbled standing starts, the confusion regarding the starting order of Sunday’s race, or the horrific final lap accident involving Dario Franchitti, Takuma Sato and E.J. Viso, the Izod IndyCar Series had something of a forgettable weekend in Houston.
Below, we will take a look at the stories making headlines from this past weekend in Houston in a statement/answer format.
By now, I presume you’ve seen the scary video of Franchitti’s last lap accident with Takuma Sato and E.J. Viso from Sunday. Franchitti, of course, was launched airborne into a catch fence after colliding with Sato, ultimately suffered a concussion, broken back, broken ribs and a broken right ankle. Thirteen spectators and one IndyCar official also incurred minor injuries.
The general consensus in the aftermath was understandably one of relief. Franchitti, of course, has been launched airborne previously, most notably back in 2007, when he had separate airborne incidents in back-to-back weeks at Michigan and Kentucky. The Kentucky incident, of course, came after the checkered flag when Franchitti was unaware the race was over, and went over the top of Kosuke Maatsura, who had lifted off the throttle after the checkered flag.
In both instances Franchitti landed on the roll cage, and was able to walk away shaken but uninjured. This was different, as Franchitti got into fence, reminiscent of Jeff Krosnoff’s fatal accident at Toronto in 1996, which also resulted in the death of race marshal Gary Arvin.
Luckily, Franchitti escaped with only injuries, in what can only be considered a testament to the incredible strides made in race technology, the safety of the Dallara DW 12, and probably some very good fortune.
The Catch Fence:
The fencing at Houston also managed to keep Franchitti inside the track and away from the spectators. So, from that perspective one could correctly point out the fence “did its job."
But the fact that parts of the fencing came apart and flew into a crowd of spectators cannot be overlooked. We here at AutoRacing1.com have begun acquiring data regarding the fencing, and are hoping to have sometime within the next week.
As previously mentioned, issues with the track surface resulted in delays both Friday and Saturday. Now, I understand the PR spin (I’ve done such spin before myself) that the promotion team had only 5 days to erect the course, as the Houston Texans hosted a game the Sunday before. Also, I’m aware the turf blocks from the Reliant Stadium playing surface happened to be stored in an area of the parking lot which apparently contributed to wearing down the race surface resulting in an undesirable bump on the front straight.
But this notion that the series and the promotional team had only 5 days to get the course ready is frankly, a load of balderdash. The series had a year and a half, as the announcement for the race was made March 28, 2012.
And I have to ask the following: were there any feasibility tests done with the surface? Did IndyCar consider that the surface might reasonably change in the time between their race and the Champ Car event in 2007? Are feasibility tests at such temporary circuits a realistic possibility from an economic standpoint? Certainly, one would have to imagine that the Reliant Stadium parking lot would be more easily available than say, downtown Baltimore.
Further, knowing there was a Texans game the Sunday before were adequate measures taken to expedite preparation time?
Whatever the case, the result was the series and the promotional team looked unprepared and amateurish. And for a sport desperately trying to rebuild its brand, such avoidable missteps must stop.
But I’ll give the series this:
In the aftermath of this weekend’s less than stellar display, IndyCar President of Competition Derrick Walker stepped to the forefront and took responsibility for the mess. Walker gave us no PR spin, no BS excuses, rather a simple, forthright, “it’s not acceptable," when asked about the missteps in Houston in an interview with Marshall Pruett of Racer.com
Now, Walker did go on to explain some of the obstacles the series faced in erecting the Houston layout. Fair enough.
However, he stated numerous times in the interview and in numerous ways that measures would be taken “to head off these catastrophes before they happen."
Folks, that is what you call leadership; something Indy car racing has been desperately in need of for decades. Finally, it seems they have found someone in Walker who displays the unique attributes necessary to negotiate the rough waters of the IndyCar paddock.
Walker commands both the respect of technical and commercial folk alike, as he has enjoyed success in both areas of the sport. He possesses the rare gift of someone who can be honest and forthright without offending. He can articulate a contrary viewpoint without being argumentative, and not disenfranchising the person with a contrarian view. He is respected and admired, yet still approachable, and not viewed as distant or aloof.
In short, he is exactly what IndyCar needs.
Now, the appointment of Walker has yet to show any tangible results in TV ratings or commercial growth. However, the silly divisions that once characterized the paddock are so 2012. And we may one day look back on 2013 as the year that saw the emergence of Walker to a leadership role within the sport.
A very poorly kept secret was officially confirmed Friday, when it was announced 2013 Indianapolis 500 champion Tony Kanaan would join Chip Ganassi Racing in 2014 with backing from NTT Data. Also, of note, was the announcement that the Ganassi team was switching from Honda to Chevrolet engines.
While some are forecasting dominance for Chevrolet in 2014, I have long noted that Honda is an incredibly proud company, which will not take this announcement lying down. If anything, the Ganassi-to-Chevrolet news is welcome in my mind, as an indication that genuine manufacturer competition has returned to the sport.
As for Kanaan, his moving to Ganassi should improve his chances of repeating as Indy 500 champion, and contending for wins on a regular basis. My question is whether this was the best move for Ganassi.
While I have no intention to impugn Kanaan, whose record speaks for itself, he will be 39 in December. Since 2004, the only driver to have won an Indy car style race after his 39th birthday is Franchitti (2012 Indy 500). Before Franchitti, one would have to go back to Adrian Fernandez, who won three races during the 2004 IRL season to find a driver to have found victory lane after turning 39.
Further, Kanaan boasts only two victories in the last 5 years, both on ovals. If you want to find a victorious drive on a road course at the age of 39, you must go back to Michael Andretti (Long Beach, 2002). And in an IndyCar Series that has skewed more towards road and street course racing in recent years, Kanaan boasts a mere 3 road and street course podiums over the past five seasons, and only 4 top-5 qualifying efforts. Also, TK has been out qualified by his lesser-heralded teammate 7-5 this season on road and street courses.
Would Ganassi have been better off with James Hinchcliffe or Sebastien Bourdais? Would an aggressive play for young Conor Daly have made more sense? Or will the resources of team Ganassi be just what the doctor ordered for Kanaan?
Time will tell.
I’m just not sure this is the super-team some are predicting. Franchitti turns 41 next May, Kanaan will be 39 in December. And while there are historical examples of Indy car drivers excelling in their 40s, there are very few recent examples forecasting huge success for the likable Brazilian.
A Few Quick Items:
–I hope the three aborted standing starts this past weekend, do not encourage the series to abandon the idea. Standing starts are a sight to behold, and presuming the anti-stall systems are sound, safer than rolling starts.
–If you want a compelling reason why IndyCar should end its season Labor Day weekend, compare the TV ratings between the Baltimore race and this past weekend's races – they plummeted over 50%.
–Speaking of TV ratings, Notre Dame hosting USC at 7:30 p.m. on the evening of the Fontana race, does not forecast well for the IndyCar finale. You also have to wonder if IndyCar accounted for this when scheduling the Fontana race, particularly considering their broadcast partner NBC is airing the game on network television.
Brian Carroccio is an IndyCar Columnist for AutoRacing1.com. He can be contacted at BrianC@AutoRacing1.com.