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.”
After explaining why he wasn't at the track to personally handle the track surface issues, Walker expressed his views on the track delay situation.
“It's not acceptable,” he declared. “We are going to change our approach to how we deal with street circuits. There are some things we have to do in order to do that, and some things we need to plan for in advance to make sure we prevent issues like this as far in advance as possible – to make the track acceptable for our teams and our fans.
“The track was being completed at the same time we were rolling in seeing the track for the first time in its final form. It's no good for the promoter, it's no good for IndyCar, and it's no good for the teams, or the fans who came out to watch motor racing. We're going to make some changes for the future, which we're still discussing and developing, to head off these catastrophes before they happen. And that's what it was.
“People have every right to be very disappointed in us for allowing what has happened in the past to happen again. We will implement changes to minimize these problems in the future. We need to demonstrate that by our actions.”
This writer discussed a number of possible solutions to implement on the series' return to Houston and every other street course – venues that often experience road work and surface changes between visits. A more detailed pre-event checklist that places final ownership of the track build and suitable surface conditions on the series seems to be what will come out of the Houston delays.
Shuffling the order of how certain build steps are completed should also take place.
“When it's a temporary track, there are some time issues,” Walker explained. “The promoters were willing to build the track weeks in advance, but could not do so because of the tight timeframe he was given by the [Reliant] stadium owners. You could say he didn't build it fast enough, but they completed the track in record time. The issue was that where some of the slabs that were placed on the racing surface, seeing what was underneath didn't happen until the build was essentially completed Thursday night.”
This sequence, in particular, led to the discovery of the uneven tracks surface, according to Walker. Giant grass-covered concrete slabs, which were relocated to the right of the run between the bridge on the front straight and the chicane at Turn 2, had apparently been placed on the front straight by the stadium authorities and were the last items to be moved to complete the circuit. That timing led to the revelation of the surface issues and caused the delays.
“They didn't see the affected portion of the track until the blocks were moved,” he said. “In hindsight, you could say it should have been moved sooner, a week out or something, so we could see the full surface. Hindsight is 20/20. We did have people go in early to inspect the process, we had boots on the ground the entire week through, but unfortunately, the final block to be moved was sitting right over the bump.
“But if we're going to say the surface is good to go a week out from the race, we do need to see all of the surface, so that won't happen again. I don't know if we need an Indy Lights car, as you've suggested, out there running around a week in advance to test the surface and look for issues; we can survey the track and do that without a car because it's not always possible. But, whatever the method, we need to be on top of things, in better control of things, because we can't afford to let this happen again.”
The IndyCar Series has one race left in the 2013 championship, held on the oval in Fontana, but traditionally starts its season with a number of street races. Walker's plans won't be seen in action until 2014, but vows to use the off-season to prevent future Houston's from happening.
“We'll make sure that any issues we have are addressed in advance,” he added. “It's a partnership with the promoter, so we have to work with all of them to make sure the event is suitable to run. For street tracks like this, we need to have a grinder on stand-by. We need to look at all that's gone wrong over time with street races and be ready to fix those things before they happen, and to be prepared to deal with unforeseen things when they do happen in a better, faster manner. That's what I'll be working on as we go into next season. We will be better prepared.”