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IndyCar To Hit Streets Of Houston

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, March 29 2012

INDYCAR boss Randy Bernard announced that Houston is getting a race.

Open-wheel racing will return to Houston on a familiar street course beginning in October 2013.

Randy Bernard, INDYCAR’s chief executive officer, announced Wednesday the IZOD IndyCar Series has scheduled the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston on a 1.7-mile circuit at Reliant Park for Oct. 4-6, 2013. Bernard was joined by Mike Lanigan, Mi-Jack Promotions principal, during a news conference capping more than a year of negotiations.

Bernard said many factors contributed to the decision to award Houston a spot on the 2013 schedule.

“When we look at growing our schedule, one of our top objectives is to showcase our racing in major U.S. cities, which in turn helps our sponsors, team-owners and television package and is key to the success of our sport,” Bernard said in a statement. “As the fourth-largest city in the country, Houston is a great fit for the IZOD IndyCar Series and Reliant Park will be a tremendous venue.”

INDYCAR has competed at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth since the track’s inaugural season in 1997. The Firestone 550k on June 9 is the seventh of 16 events on the 2012 schedule, and will mark the 22nd time the series will have competed on TMS’ 1.5-mile quadoval. After experimenting with a dual-race program in 2011, the event will return to its original format in June. Eddie Gossage, TMS’ president and promoter, has been working with Bernard on one-year contracts.

“We are thrilled to be returning to Houston,” said Lanigan, chairman/CEO of the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston. “The grand prix was very successful in 2006 and 2007 (Champ Car World Series events won by Sebastien Bourdais), with big crowds at Reliant Park witnessing an exciting three-day festival of speed. In 2013 it will be better than ever.”

Brian Barnhart, INDYCAR’s president of operations and strategy, toured the complex Wednesday and was impressed with the infrastructure and venue for racing and spectators. The 1.7-mile, 10-turn concrete circuit figures to challenge drivers and teams. “Aside from the size of the market and what it brings, to be in the Reliant Park complex is just a phenomenal venue that will be great because it’s so convenient and well-packaged,” Bernard said.

IndyCar driver Helio Castroneves – winner of last Sunday’s season-opening Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg – was joined by team-owner Roger Penske for the announcement. Others participating in the news conference were Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, City of Houston Mayor Pro-Tem Ed Gonzalez, Shell Oil Company President Marvin Odum and George DeMontrond, chairman of the Grand Prix Local Organizing Committee.

“It’s always fun to put on a great show in front of large crowds,” said Castroneves, driver of the No. 3 Shell V-Power/Pennzoil Ultra Dallara/Chevrolet. “And with Houston being a gateway to Central and South America, it’s important for the series’ Latin America audience to have the opportunity to experience these urban festivals that always have a fun and exciting atmosphere.”

Penske added: “It is important for the IZOD IndyCar Series to bring events to major markets to not only grow the series but to expand the audience and create new fans of the sport. With the history of open-wheel racing in downtown Houston and at Reliant Park, this is a great opportunity to bring a vibrant street race to the fourth-largest city in the United States.”

Frenchman Bourdais, now driving for Lotus-Dragon Racing, said he’s looking forward to returning to Reliant Park. Dario Franchitti (1998) won the inaugural race in Houston, with the list of winners including Paul Tracy, Jimmy Vasser and Gil de Ferran. “It’s a really hard course,” said Bourdais, a four-time Champ Car champion. “It’s what we call ‘concrete racing’ and it’s not easy. Houston is a good market for INDYCAR and is a very positive thing for the series.”

A multi-year title sponsorship agreement between Shell and Pennzoil and Mi-Jack Promotions made the event’s return possible. “Shell has built a long, storied history in motorsports across the world,” said Lisa Davis, president of Shell Commercial Fuels and Lubricants Americas. “Becoming the title sponsor for the IndyCar Series race lets us bring the grand prix home to enjoy with our customers, employees and neighbors.”

In 2006-07, the Grand Prix of Houston generated an estimated economic impact of more than $35-million per year to the region and resulted in substantial international exposure for the city and Harris County. With that background, then-Mayor Annise Parker and Emmett founded the Grand Prix Local Organizing Committee in 2010 to identify a title sponsor and make the grand prix’s return possible.

“On behalf of all of us involved in the Grand Prix Local Organizing Committee, I would like to thank Randy Bernard and the IZOD IndyCar Series for their confidence in Houston,” DeMontrond said. “We are also very grateful for the leadership of Mayor Parker and Judge Emmett, and for Shell and Pennzoil stepping up and providing the sponsorship support we needed.”

Event organizers are planning a “three-day festival of speed,” with a variety of family-friendly activities complementing on-track action. Tickets are not on sale, but fans can visit www.grandprixofhouston.com to join the “Checkered Flag Club” to receive information and pre-sale opportunities.

A test of the 2012 Dallara DW12 chassis has been scheduled for April 4 at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway in preparation for the 96th running of the Indianapolis 500 in May. Teams will be limited to one car each at the test.

“What was originally scheduled to be a manufacturers’ test has been expanded to provide each team the opportunity to send one car to the test,” said Will Phillips, vice president of technology for INDYCAR. “Dallara has worked hard to make sure all the required parts are available to allow teams to test the new package.”

Rookie drivers will not participate in the April 4 test, as the Rookie Orientation Program is slated for May 10 at IMS.

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, March 29 2012
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