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Grand Prix Organizers Trying To Build Houston Racing Tradition

IndyCar Grand Prix of Houston takes place at NRG Park this weekend.

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Engines howled as IndyCar drivers were practicing on the 1.7-mile track on the parking lot of NRG Park on Friday.

They were getting ready for races No. 9 and No. 10 of the 18-race IndyCar season Saturday and Sunday.

 “It’s, you know, reasonably quick for a street circuit,” said Bobby Rahal, three time CART championship winner, president of the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team and the grand marshal for the Houston Grand Prix this year.

“There’s a couple, you know, relatively slow corners but there’s some faster ones as well, and the big thing is it’s rough in places that maybe you wouldn’t notice in a street car but in a race car you notice it. And so it really puts a challenge for the teams and what have you to get the cars to perform well over the bumps.”

And of course, Houston in June adds additional challenges.

“The humidity is really your enemy, ‘cause you really lose a lot of fluid, sweat a lot. This race, this weekend, will be very, very, probably the most demanding weekend that these guys will face all year, because there being two races on one weekend and also the fact of the temperature and the humidity.”

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Racing crews prepare for Saturday’s IndyCar race at NRG Park.

Last year, the Houston Grand Prix saw a major crash that ended race driver Dario Franchitti’s career and also injured several spectators. Austin Crossley, managing director for the Houston event, said since then, changes have been made to avoid a similar scenario.

“We did a comprehensive study with IndyCar. We made improvements to the race surface and to the race fence and to the venue layout in order to make things as safe as possible,” he said. “And we really feel good about those improvements.”  

This is the eighth Grand Prix of Houston and the fourth at what is now called NRG Park. The races took place downtown around the George R. Brown Convention Center in the late 1990s and early 2000s, back then as part of the CART series.

Crossley said while the Houston Grand Prix attracts many thousands of visitors, the interruptions between 2001 and 2006 and again from ‘07 to ‘13 didn’t help to grow the event’s popularity.

“That leads to maybe some fan confusion and certainly doesn’t help building traditions,” he said. “So now we’re back, we have the right sponsorship support with Shell and Pennzoil. We have the dates, we have IndyCar, which is a series that’s on the rise, and so we really feel like this is our chance. This is to establish the tradition.”

The current contract with IndyCar runs for three more years and Crossley is optimistic that it will be extended.

The televised IndyCar races go underway at 2 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday.

Besides the Grand Prix, there will also be various smaller races during the weekend in Houston, including the Pro Mazda Championship.

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IndyCar drivers practice for Saturday’s Grand Prix of Houston.

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