Thursday, March 29, 2012

Houston and a Couple of Other Thoughts

The announcement today that Houston will be on the 2013 schedule confirmed one of the worst-kept secrets of all time. While many tried to engage Randy Bernard and Roger Penske at St. Pete about Houston being in the works, they didn't bite, instead pleading ignorance about the whole thing.

Well the lid was blown off that this morning when Helio Castroneves tweeted that he was at the airport waiting for a flight to Houston. Oh well, at least everyone tried.

Anyway, the race is scheduled to go off in October and will feature a concrete "parking-lot" course around Reliant Stadium and the Astrodome. The course was used for Champ Car for the 2006-07 races, which were both won by Sebastian Bourdais.

While I am not thrilled about the addition of another temporary venue, a couple of things make this a positive move. The race will be sponsored by Shell and Pennzoil, which gives the series better sponsor activation, and it will be promoted by Mike Lanigan, who owns a team with Bobby Rahal (making him familiar with IndyCar and what it needs to put on a successful race) and was a promoter of the Cleveland Grand Prix, which was long a popular and successful staple on the open wheel schedule.

Not only that, it moves the series into the nation's fourth-largest city and 10th-largest media market. Assuming Fontana and Belle Isle are still on the 2013 schedule, it means that there will be racing in five of the top 12 markets in the US. Los Angeles is the 2nd largest market, Dallas is seventh and Houston, Detroit and Tampa/St. Pete are 10th-12th, respectively.

(Note: Baltimore ranks 24, Indianapolis 25 and Milwaukee 33)

Also worth mentioning is Sao Paulo is the 6th largest city in the world and Qingdao has a metro population of 4.5 million people. While I think that the series should focus on North American races (don't want to forget Canada), venturing to areas that either have a built-in fanbase (Brazil) or an untapped market where sponsors want to become more involved (China) can work too.

On the oval front, Bernard invited an interesting guest to St. Pete over the weekend. Brandon Igdalsky, president of Pocono Raceway, was at Sunday's race as "a fan", but it makes you wonder if they had a couple of conversations about the series returning to eastern Pennsylvania. Pocono was originally built for open wheel cars but for a long time was woefully lacking in open wheel safety standards. That has since changed as Igdalsky has invested millions in infrastructure upgrades that could make a return possible.

What would be really cool would be a modified return of the old triple crown, with Pocono, Indy and Fontana (replacing the now-defunct Ontario Speedway).

Either way, reports that more than a half-dozen venues have been in touch with Bernard recently about putting on races in 2013, including ovals like Phoenix, Pocono and Richmond. While I hope that ovals will be a priority from here on out -- especially Chicagoland -- I wouldn't mind if Road America made it back on the schedule too.

Finally, it was announced that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will be open for testing next Wednesday, April 4. One car from each team will be allowed to test, and no rookie drivers will be permitted. While $4.50 a gallon gas prevents me from taking a day off to get down there (saving up for May!), hopefully many readers and bloggers will be in the house.

Of course, the biggest tidbit of information we need (and YouTube videos as well) is lap times. A lot has changed on the cars since Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan tested in November, so next week will be a better predictor as to what we will see in May.

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