Indy cars raced around the Reliant Stadium park last October. There were problems with the track and seating layout that resulted in 13 spectators going to the hospital after the car of Dario Franchitti went airborne. Franchitti's injuries were severe enough that he had to quit racing.
The IndyCar Series returns to Houston this weekend for the Grand Prix of Houston. The weekend once again brings a doubleheader of Indy racing with races on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Race organizers promise safer conditions -- the blame for last October partly goes, they claim, to having to squeeze the event into a weekend between Texans games, which did not allow for enough time to fix problems with the track. But while the actual course might be safer, conditions for drivers, crews and spectators promise to be much, much, much worse.
The races are being conducted during the hottest part of the day on both Saturday and Sunday because that's when NBC Sports Network demands the races be held. And the races are being run in June because the IndyCar Series decided to conclude its schedule by the end of August, and the only time available for Houston's race was late June.
"With the doubleheader format, we couldn't clear TV time to broadcast the races live on two consecutive nights, and when we couldn't do that, our sponsors said they want to be on TV for the exposure," race general manager Chuck Kosich told the Chronicle.
Thus, intense heat for drivers and crews wearing heavy fire-resistant suits. And conditions won't be any better for the fans who'll discover, if they're not already aware of it, that roaming concrete parking lots lacking much shade during the middle of a late June day is not a pleasant experience.
Water-misting stations are being installed around the race course. Reliant officials are also generously allowing spectators to bring in one 20-ounce bottle for water, which can supposedly be refilled for free at water fountains that will be stationed around the track. Fans will also be allowed to gather inside Reliant Arena so they can experience air-conditioning and watch the race on TV screens. And of course, the people in the suites will be able to watch the race with the added comfort of air-conditioning.
But in the overall scheme of the weekend, the comfort of the spectators is of secondary importance to what will be experienced by the drivers and the pit crews. Not only do they have to race the fiery hell of the Reliant Stadium parking lot once, they must do it twice. There's no air-conditioning in the cars.
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"It's for sure going to be brutal for the mechanics, drivers and equipment. On the mechanical side, we have to make sure we have enough openings (air intakes) so the engine cools down enough and we don't lose performance," driver Helio Castroneves told the Chronicle. "The mechanics will be using ice packs, I'm sure, because they'll be in their suits and helmets and standing in 100 degree temperatures. The drivers will have to hydrate the whole week before the race."
The race is supposedly locked into this June date for five years, which means many years of miserable drivers and uncomfortable fans. But given how the IndyCar Series is still doing the doubleheader races despite the complaints of drivers, it's hard to see series officials moving the race to a more reasonable date.
I'm admittedly not the biggest of auto racing fans, though I do watch IndyCar from time to time, especially when they're on a road course -- sorry, I just don't get the whole NASCAR thing. So maybe I'm missing the reasons for going out to Reliant Park this weekend to see bits and pieces of a race that can be watched more comfortably from my sofa. But as a backer of there being big events in Houston, I hope the event's a huge success with huge crowds and exciting races.
But let's also hope for no repeat of last season. Let's hope for safe racing. Let's hope that no driver's career is ended because of a wreck. Let's hope spectators only go to the hospital because of heat stroke and not because of being struck by car debris from a flying car. And let's hope that when the Grand Prix of Houston rolls back around next year, they're able to hold it during a more hospitable time of the year, or at least at night or in the morning.