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The upcoming Shell & Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston marks the third trip for open-wheel racing to “Space City”. The first two iterations didn’t strike a chord with fans or contestants, but the hope is that a title sponsor and easily repeatable venue can turn that history around.
CART originally visited the city of Houston and contested a true “street” race with the Texaco Grand Prix of Houston from 1998-2001 on a 1.5-mile conglomeration of city streets downtown near the George R. Brown Convention Center. Strong fields saw a who’s who of CART shoes visiting victory lane, with Dario Franchitti capturing the inaugural event, followed by Paul Tracy in 1999, Jimmy Vasser in 2000, and Gil de Ferran in 2001.
Construction and sponsor issues saw open-wheel leave the city for four years until the Champ Car World Series returned in 2006 to run the Grand Prix of Houston on the Reliant Park parking lot. A 1.7-mile temporary course was laid out around the Astrodome and Reliant Stadium, but the track had some rough edges that put drivers’ nerves on notice. Bruno Junqueira said at the time that it was the roughest circuit he had ever run on, and drivers also balked at the long front stretch leading into turn one, which had almost no runoff room to speak of. A speed-lowering chicane was added to assuage drivers’ concerns, and the return event saw an estimated crowd of over 127,000 fans pass through the turnstiles for the CCWS and ALMS night races. Sebastian Bourdais took victory in a Newman-Haas Racing entry, an all too common occurrence in those days.
2007 saw Champ Car return, and 17 cars took the green flag for that year’s event, which again ran unsponsored. Bourdais paced the field yet again, leading 62 laps en route to capturing the checkered flag. Fan turnout was again strong, though a not-unexpected decline in attendance was present due to it being the second year of the event and its daytime running. Reliant Park was set to make a return on the doomed CCWS schedule in 2008, but the open-wheel merger saw the event dropped mere weeks before it would have run, placing Houston in open-wheel limbo.
Since that time, Houston has been a long-rumored addition to the schedule, but lack of funding has always kept the event from being finalized until now. Corporate giant Shell/Pennzoil is based in Houston and has entered into a multiple-year sponsorship agreement. A presenting sponsor has also been found in the Houston Honda Dealers, and the track itself even has a name this time around: Reliant Park will be known as the MD Anderson Cancer Center Speedway for the weekend.
Will the event grab a foothold in Houston’s crowded social calendar? It’s yet to be seen, of course, but things seem well on track for a successful return for IndyCar to the Energy Capital of the World, as long as IndyCar doesn’t sabotage the fledgling event by moving it to August next year as has been recently rumored.
Event organizers have been running “pit parties” throughout town, in addition to advertising charitable outreaches and a re-incarnated “Miss Grand Prix of Houston” contest. Billboards featuring the familiar red, yellow, and white DW12 of Helio Castroneves dot the Houston skyline, and ticket sales seem to be brisk so far by all accounts. Even the double-header format has been embraced, with the catch phrase “H-Town Doubles Down!” being used in print and media ads. Excitement is definitely building locally for the event.
With USF2000, Pro Mazda, Indy Lights, and Pirelli World Challenge all sharing the event weekend, track time will be at a premium. Bourdais, Graham Rahal, Justin Wilson, Will Power, Oriol Servia, and Simon Pagenaud all have experience on the Reliant Park concrete and could be factors early in the double header.
Keep an eye here on More Front Wing as I (@jdlingle) am joined by MFW Co-editor Steph Wallcraft (@99forever) on scene all weekend long to bring you news and views from trackside as it all unfolds!