HOUSTON — Moments after Dario Franchitti’s career-ending crash on the last lap of the Grand Prix of Houston, race promoter Mike Lanigan went to the accident scene to see the damage firsthand.
The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner fractured two vertebrae and broke his right ankle when his car went airborne into a fence last October. The spectacular crash showered debris into the grandstand, injuring 13 fans and an IndyCar Series official.
“I went out there within minutes and I sat on the wall and I said, ‘What in God’s name I am doing in this business?’” Lanigan said Friday. “But then I said after a while how fortunate we were — that’s a racing incident and we’ve been in the business long enough to understand that. But it was still shocking. It’s still depressing.”
Lanigan, who brought racing back to the temporary street course at Reliant Park last year for the first time since 2007, had a difficult weekend in IndyCar’s return last year.
Because his group couldn’t access to the course until the week of the race because the Houston Texans were using the area, no one was aware of a bump in the track surface until opening day and it ultimately altered the championship race. Track workers had to erect a temporary chicane to keep cars from launching over the bump, then work overnight trying to grind it down.
In the end, everything that could go wrong for points leader Helio Castroneves did, and his shot at the championship slipped away during the doubleheader weekend. Adding salt to the wound, Castroneves sponsor Shell Pennzoil was the title sponsor of the race.
Then came Sunday’s accident, and Lanigan, a part owner in Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, was devastated.
“After the smoke cleared a month or two after the race, we said, ‘If this ever happens again, we want to make sure that nobody gets hurt,’” he said.
The fence that Franchitti hit has been fortified, and the grandstands where fans were seated and hit with debris were removed. All told, Lanigan estimated $700,000 was spent on safety improvements.
Another $300,000 was poured into track improvements, and Lanigan said work continued as late as last week on the bump that affected last year’s race.
Because the race date was moved from October to June this year, the track build was done in a month instead of a week.
“Last year was challenging, to say the least, but we had more time and we took the bump out earlier last week,” he said.
“And then we tested it and found out we needed to do some more work. So we put another big patch in the dip. It’s not perfect. But every year we’ll improve the pavement.”
Grinding has been done in various areas and there’s more to do after Will Power launched over a high curb. But drivers had few complaints after a pair of practice sessions, especially after IndyCar said work would be done on the Turn 2 curb. The course is technically a parking lot, so the drivers accepted the challenges ahead for Saturday and Sunday.
“It’s bumpy, the bumpiest track we go to,” said Ryan Hunter-Reay. “The steering wheel is literally getting ripped out of your hands, but it’s the same for everybody. But the areas where the cars were launching last year are gone. They smoothed it out, and they did a good job.”
Still, there’s a major concern across the paddock for the entire weekend: Heat.
Although temperatures were a manageable 86 degrees with a breeze on Friday, Lanigan said the high a year ago was 104. He understood it was going to hurt attendance, despite the addition of indoor seating this year and misters positioned around the course for fans.
Lanigan had hoped the two races would be held at night, but it couldn’t be worked out with IndyCar television partner NBC Sports.
It means the heat for the two afternoon starts will be a test for the drivers, and could turn the races into a survival of the fittest. Simon Pagenaud spent all last week training in California in preparation for the race, and seemed comfortable. At the Team Penske paddock, sweat poured off Australian driver Will Power, who took the top half off his firesuit down. But teammates Juan Pablo Montoya and Castroneves, who both live in Miami, said they were fine and left their firesuits buttoned all the way.
“Power is the only one who is hot,” Montoya said. “I don’t even think this is hot.”
Although Castroneves questioned the scheduling of two races in June in Houston, he did think he and Montoya were a bit more acclimated to the humidity.
“It is challenging, but I think it is more challenging for the mechanics standing out there with helmets and firesuits,” he said. “The drivers are all fit, and really strong. I guess we have to see who is the strongest.”