LIVE BLOG: Houston, Friday

IndyCar, IndyCar commentary — By on October 4, 2013 9:47 am
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Greeting from trackside at the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston! More Front Wing co-editor Steph Wallcraft and contributor John Lingle will be providing live updates all weekend long. On this page, you’ll find the full live blog for Friday’s events. The most recent updates are at the top, so if this is your first visit then please start at the bottom and work your way up. Feedback is always welcome — please leave it in the comments or email feedback@morefrontwing.com.

For time sheets, session notes and other race weekend statistics, please visit our Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston Event Summary.

6:01 PM CT (Steph): With track activity having come to a close, we’re ready to call it a day. From John and I, thanks very much for reading and supporting the live blog on More Front Wing this weekend. Remember, our coverage this weekend is in support of the Dyslexia Institute of Indiana, so if you’ve enjoyed it we’d greatly appreciate it if you could take a moment to click on the banner above and make a donation. We’ll be back bright and early tomorrow to continue our updates live from trackside at the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston!

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5:15 PM (John): Steph and I got a chance to talk with Indy Lights drivers Sage Karam and Jack Hawksworth after they took the top two spots in todays practice session. Both drivers echoed one another in regards to the roughness of the track.

Karam (P1 with a 1:09.3): “The track is pretty cool. It’s very different, but if I had to compare it to anywhere I would compare it to Baltimore. It’s really bumpy with a lot of concrete. It really separates the men from the boys. It’s almost impossible to set a car up to this track,. My engineer told me before I went out that this track would be 10% him and 90% me. Once I got a good feel for it I started trying to take some chunks out of some of the turns, and I managed to get a good lap together there at the end.  That will make me sleep a lot better tonight.”

Hawksworth (P2 with a 1:09.5): “The track is very slippery and bumpy. It’s very easy to make a mistake around here, especially with the heat.”

Sage feels that bumpy nature of the track will lead to difficulties in passing in the race: “The only way to make a really good move will be to pressure the guy in front, push him into a mistake and run him wide there. Turn 2 will be an ideal passing spot, and turn 6 is another good hard on the brakes passing zone. There’s a few, but I think the main thing is going to be pressuring the guy in front into a mistake.”

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5:09 PM CT (Steph): A couple of notes from IndyCar this afternoon. Dragon Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais has joined the list of drivers who will serve grid penalties in tomorrow’s race due to unapproved engine changes. (That list also includes Dario Franchitti and Graham Rahal.) Ed Carpenter is using a fresh engine this weekend, but he was not penalized for the change because it was necessitated by the transporter fire, an event “brought on by circumstances beyond the control of the team and manufacturer.”

Also, because of the modified schedule the qualifying procedure has been changed slightly for this weekend. The Firestone Fast Six format has been cancelled, and it’s yet to be determined whether tomorrow morning’s session will see all cars out at once or a split session that gives drivers 15 minutes each. That is expected to be announced shortly. If groups are required, they will be set by a random draw.

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4:35 PM CT (Steph): Honda has released an official statement regarding Chip Ganassi Racing’s decision to move to Chevrolet power for next year. Art St. Cyr, President of Honda Performance Development, said the following: “On behalf of everyone at Honda, I’d like to thank Chip Ganassi and the entire Ganassi Racing organization for their efforts in our very successful, eight-year partnership in the Indy Racing League and INDYCAR, which included four driver’s championships, three Indianapolis 500 victories and more than 40 individual race wins since 2006.

“It may be worth noting that when our previous – and also very successful – association with the Ganassi organization in Championship Auto Racing Teams competition ended after the 1999 season, Honda went on to win 15 races over the next two seasons, including both the 2000 and 2001 driver’s championship, and the 2001 Manufacturers’ Championship.

“While this partnership is coming to an end, Honda and Honda Performance Development remain committed to achieving even greater IndyCar success in the future with our continuing and new partner teams. While Honda and the Ganassi organization are going our separate ways, we remain committed to winning the 2013 Drivers’ and Manufacturers’ championships, and our collective efforts for the final three races will be entirely focused on accomplishing those objectives.”

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4:00 PM CT (John): I can concur with Steph that the layout here at Reliant Park is indeed compact for a street circuit, owing to its deign across the parking areas of the Reliant Park complex. I took a stroll this morning to see if I could locate the best viewing areas for fans around the track, and was pleasantly surprised with the available choices.

Turn 2 is a planned temporary chicane just before the braking area for turn 3, which swings the cars back around to the Astrodome. Cars have to go single file through this complex, but the braking and acceleration make for a really good lesson in just how high performance Indycar machines are. Turn 5 is a long, very bumpy right hand sweeper around the Astrodome and Reliant Stadium, and for those with cameras in tow will likely lea to some of the best shots of the weekend.

The grandstands at turn 6 will likely see a plethora of passing as cars decelerate at the end of the sweeper to make a left hand turn back south. When the cars make it back around to the start finish line the folks in Grandstand 1 will be treated to a show, as the cars will carry quite a bit of speed through two lazy left handers as they pass the pit lane area.

Fan views are plentiful, as are amenities. There seem to be no shortage of food and drink choices inside the facility, as well as access to paddock areas for no fewer than six separate race series. Heavier race traffic over the weekend will test the layout, but for now it appears very well thought out.

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3:48 PM CT (Steph): The area surrounding this track is very interesting. Those who haven’t visited Houston before may not realize exactly what Reliant Park is: it has Reliant Stadium (an enormous facility that plays home to the NFL’s Houston Texans), the Astrodome (where the Astros play, naturally enough), and Reliant Arena and the Reliant Center, which are large convention center and event spaces, all clustered together on one enormous property. It’s a natural venue choice for this kind of event because it offers a lot of real estate away from city traffic along with plenty of indoor space for the infrastructure that comes along with it. (It reminds me a fair bit of home, actually — Toronto’s Exhibition Place is a similar venue in a lot of ways.)

The track layout is pretty compact and is the shortest street course on the IndyCar calendar at 1.69 miles. I found during a walk around this morning that the infield has just about everything a fan needs in a relatively small and easily walkable amount of space (though there are two grandstands that are situated on the outside of the track, so fans who have chosen those will find that they’re traversing a lot of steps going over the bridges).

In the infield area around the IndyCar Fan Village there are various vendor booths, beer gardens, beach volleyball courts, and local food trucks (including Philly cheesesteaks, chicken and waffles, cupcakes on a stick, and a barbecue place I’m told is excellent). All of the series paddocks are in the infield as well. (None of them was lucky enough to get put in the air conditioned indoor space, unfortunately.) There are some smaller display areas and a go-kart competition happening inside Reliant Arena as well.

Among the fan events happening today are the Miss Grand Prix pageant and a Creedence Clearwater Revisited concert tonight at 8:30 (a band formed in 1995 by former Creedence Clearwater Revival members Stu Cook and Doug Clifford — so no, it’s not just a cover band!).

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3:18 PM CT (Steph): It was just announced trackside and I believe it’s new news, so let’s treat it as such: Kyle O’Gara of the Fisher-O’Gara clan is slated to run in the Firestone Indy Lights finale in two weeks at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. O’Gara made his Lights debut in the Firestone Freedom 100 earlier this year.

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3:02 PM CT (Steph): Graham Rahal and Mike Lanigan, who is part-owner of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and promoter of the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston, visited with the media this afternoon. The conversation, of course, revolved around the state of the track.

Rahal’s impression was that the track, other than the portion where the chicane has been installed, is in good shape. He says this track is bumpy but not as bumpy as Baltimore, for example. “The biggest problem is the heat,” he said as he pointed out that uncomfortable conditions make it easier to make mistakes.

Lanigan was quick to defend the team that assembled the course in very short order. “A street course normally takes four to six weeks to build,” he said. “We did it in four days. We thought we did it right, but we missed something extremely important.”

Lanigan also confirmed that a date has been selected for the 2014 IndyCar season, but his lip was buttoned on the details. He did reveal that the event is seeking a repeat of the double-header format and that the possibility of running one or both races at night is being investigated.

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2:29 PM CT (John): Pippa Mann needs your help in the 2013 IndyCar “Most Popular Driver” contest! As those of you that follow Pippa on Twitter (@pippamann) know, she has been starting a grassroots campaign to get more votes, posting signs that she’s created to promote her campaign to win Most Popular Driver. Now Pippa would like your help at the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston. Pippa hopes fans will bring signs in support of her to the IndyCar tweetup, which is set for 10:45 AM Sunday just outside the IndyCar Fan Village entrance. Pippa will be taking photos of them and posting them to her Twitter page. Get creative and come see Pippa and several others at the Houston tweetup!

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2:01 PM CT (Steph): As we mentioned in the live blog earlier today, Chip Ganassi Racing has confirmed that the team will expand to four cars in 2014 to make room for Tony Kanaan and also announced that their IndyCars will move to Chevrolet power. A selection of key quotes from the Kanaan/Ganassi/Chevrolet announcement is now available here at MoreFrontWing.com.

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1:27 PM CT (Steph): Our Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston Event Summary has been updated with the revised schedule due to the morning’s delays.

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1:05 PM CT (John): Helio Castroneves met with the media this morning and outlined his state of mind heading into the penultimate weekend of the Indycar schedule. While still wanting to push to the front of the field, it’s evident that Helio is very aware of his points standing.

“At this point, we have to go with the flow,” Helio said. “If I have a good car, we’ll go for it. In this position, there’s more for us to lose than to gain. Those people in the attack mode have more to gain, but we’re not going to drive like an old lady and just try to finish the race. We have to be rough when we have to be rough and have to be smart . I’m looking at what I can do during the two races, and having two races is a big deal. You could lose a lot of points, but at the same time you could gain a lot of points. We have to do our jobs, have good pit stops, because they aren’t going to be easy on us.”

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12:50 PM CT (John): Another press conference just concluded here at the Grand Prix of Houston. The section in turn 1 that is causing issues will be ground down tonight before tomorrow’s race. The section of the track in question is where the Houston Texans lay out their grass field between games, so event organizers did not have sufficient time to inspect the surface and make changes due to the Texans home game against Seattle next week.

For today, a temporary tire chicane has been constructed that will allow the teams to get on track, albeit in a slightly modified layout. Qualifying will not be run today, and the IndyCar Series will qualify in 30 minute sessions on Saturday and Sunday morning for each day’s race. The qualifying format has not been finalized yet, but there will not be a Firestone Fast Six knockout session either day.

The IndyCar Series is now set to see the track at 1:00 PM CST for a 45 minute practice session. That will be followed by USF2000 and Pro Mazda practice sessions. IndyCar drivers will now get a second practice session today, running another 45 minute session starting at 4:30 PM CST. Busy day so far!

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11:45 AM CT (John): Big news mixed in with some expected news here in the Grand Prix of Houston media center. Target Chip Ganassi Racing will partner with Tony Kanaan next year in a full season entry sponsored by NTT Data. The big news coming out of the presser today, however, is that the car will have Chevrolet power. Team Chevy head Jim Campbell was present and was a big part of the announcement. More updates to come on this developing story!

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10:37 AM CT (Steph): The first Firestone Indy Lights race was cancelled this morning, and IndyCar practice is currently under delay. We’re waiting for official word from IndyCar, but rumor is that the Pirelli World Challenge folks found some bumpy spots on the track in their practice session this morning that could potentially be bad enough to launch open-wheel cars. (Insert joke about Houston being Space City here.) Considering that this is a revived event and that track build couldn’t begin until after the Texans game cleared out last Sunday — and went so late that the usual Thursday track walk was cancelled — this hardly comes as a surprise. We’ll keep you updated as we learn more.

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9:47 AM CT (Steph): Good morning from trackside at the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston! John Lingle and I are very excited to be here to provide updates, news and observations from the event all weekend long.

For a start, I had a chance to check in with the PR manager with Ed Carpenter Racing this morning and ask exactly how bad the damage was from the transporter fire the team dealt with on the way back from the Fontana test. The fire started when a rock hit a brake line in the right rear of the trailer, which resulted in the brake line overheating. The team lost their trailer completely, and there was damage to their fuel rig, pit stand, the team uniforms and other sundries — plus, the car had enough smoke damage that the team needed to spend an extra 40 hours above what they normally allot to get the car prepared for this weekend. Thanks to their hard work and to Dreyer & Reinbold, whose trailer and fuel rig ECR is using this weekend, the team made it in time for the start of track activities here in Houston, but it certainly went beyond typical preparations.

I got in late last night, so I don’t have very much to report in the way of travel as of yet. I decided to fly out of Buffalo this time around, which meant a longer border crossing but a more economical flight — and some proper Buffalo wings at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo Airport plus a flight path that took us 10,000 feet above Niagara Falls sweetened the deal. By the time I got to my hotel the awesome-smelling barbecue place was closed (which was torture because I was starving by that point), but I’m very excited to get a taste of proper Texas barbecue while I’m here.

Speaking of Texas, there are two things about the Houston area that I’ve observed so far. First, they do everything big here, including the humidity. People were telling me all week, “You’re going to Houston? Oh, you won’t believe how humid it is.” I thought, nah, we get humidity at home, I know what it’s like. But they’ve got some kind of freakish Texas-large humidity here. I crawled into bed in an air conditioned hotel room last night at about midnight and the sheets were sticking to me like they were wet. That plus the high 80s temperatures this weekend should make things hard on the Midwesterners around here this weekend!

And the other thing that Houston does big is traffic. I thought by being on the road by 7:30 this morning I’d be early enough to miss it, but I thought wrong.

Still, my early impressions of the Houston area are very positive. The people here are so gosh-darned friendly. All of the locals on my flight down wanted to chat up a storm and tell all of the visitors how great Houston is and what they should see and do and eat while in town, and that warm friendliness has remained a consistent theme since I landed. I’m looking forward to learning more about everything Houston and Texas have to offer.

Stay tuned to this page — John and I will be updating it with news as it happens all day long from the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston!

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