Walker (blue shirt) in front of the fence damaged in the Franchitti/Sato
incident (Ron Bijlsma/LAT photo)
Without overstating the obvious, the IndyCar Series did not cover itself in glory last weekend.
The series' first trip to race on the streets of Houston, held on a track layout that was previously used by the defunct Champ Car organization, was revived by IndyCar team owner and event promoter Mike Lanigan after a five-year layoff. With its 1.7-mile design set around Reliant Stadium, home of the Houston Texans NFL team, creation of the temporary circuit was held until the Texans' game was completed on Sunday, Sept. 29, giving the event organizers, headed by Martyn Thake, a very short window to position the barriers, fencing and necessary infrastructure to hold the Shell & Pennzoil Grand Prix double-header.
Although the physical deployment of the track had been accomplished by Thursday night, track-related delays pushed Friday's practice session back, forced the cancellation of qualifying, and required the use of a temporary tire chicane on the front straight to slow cars in front of a Baltimore-esque jump.
The disruption also had owners, drivers and fans wondering why, after so many other new (or returning) street courses experienced opening day delays, history was repeating itself in Houston. The track surface issue was mostly resolved overnight with a track grinder, allowing IndyCar drivers to run down the straight without a tire chicane on Saturday and Sunday.
Both IndyCar races were run without track surface problems, but the final lap of Round 2 made headlines for all the wrong reasons as Dario Franchitti was sent into the fencing at Turn 5, injuring himself, 12 fans and one series official. Although everyone is expected to make a full recovery, the troubling end to the weekend matched the troubled start, casting a pall over what should have been a crowning weekend for Lanigan and his title sponsors.
With an ongoing investigation into the crash and barrier damage created from Franchitti's airborne experience, IndyCar President of Competition Derrick Walker was unable to speak on that topic, but was able to answer questions about the poor start to the event and measures to prevent them from happening in the future.
To start, one of the criticisms leveled at the series, and Walker directly, was his absence for most of the weekend. Although he began his new role with IndyCar in June, he did so with the understanding that he would be forced to miss select events due to owning and running a sports car program for sponsor Falken tire in the American Le Mans Series. With the ALMS competing in Virginia on Friday and Saturday, Walker flew to Texas on Saturday night, where he assumed his regular duties.
Walker (left) confers with Team Penske's Rick Mears. (LAT photo)
“The buck stops with me, 100 percent,” Walker said in a RACER exclusive. “That's my job. It all falls on me, whether I was there or not. As to me not being there, and I've heard that comment being put around, the reality is IndyCar asked me to come on board and knew I had a previous commitment. They accepted the fact I've got dual obligations. To be respectful to my pre-existing client, Falken, I've satisfied my duties to them, first, and [the series] has always accepted it would be as such.
“Whether I was there (in Houston) or not, I don't think would have changed the outcome we dealt with. The dilemma we have with all temporary racetracks, by the promoters and by us, it's not released to us at the last moment, and in this case, it was last minute. It was very late, and by that point, when we saw the [track surface] problem, we had to assess the problem, see how bad it was, and in the meantime, make arrangements to address the problem were made.
“We saw the issue, we expressed it to the promoter, they said, ‘Yep, we'll get a grinder,' but there aren't too many [grinders] sitting on the street corner waiting to do grinding. The fallback plan was to put a chicane in to at least let teams get some practice while we sorted the problem out.”