IndyCar's return to the streets of Houston in 2013 left a haunting impression on many who witnessed Dario Franchitti's career-ending crash at Turn 5. Flying fence structures that landed in the grandstands, not to mention accident debris that injured fans, also tainted the event's first running after a five-year hiatus.
As the series returns for this weekend's Grand Prix of Houston double-header, drivers and fans will find a number of necessary safety improvements in the wake of what took place last year. INDYCAR, sanctioning body for the Verizon IndyCar Series, performed and concluded a thorough and detailed investigation of the crash, finding multiple improvements for the track's safety measures to be increased and areas for its spec Dallara DW12 chassis to be strengthened.
Updates to the DW12 took place earlier in the year, leaving race promoter Mike Lanigan, who also co-owns the Rahal Letterman Lanigan IndyCar team, to commission upgrades throughout the 1.6-mile, 10-turn street circuit that runs around Reliant Park.
The most notable change for 2014 involves the deletion of grandstands on the outside of the fast right-hand corner at Turn 5. Franchitti's launch into the barriers, which took place after contact was made with the slowing car of Takuma Sato, saw the Scot's car carried over the cement barrier and into the fence by centrifugal force. With fans sitting on the outside of the sweeping corner, the laws of nature sent any and all debris in their direction, resulting in more than a dozen injuries. Many of the injured received attention while on site and a few required more extensive attention at the hospital before being released.
A major issue involving the track's fencing was highlighted during Franchitti's crash, which has been addressed by the event organizers. Upon hitting the fence, the sheet-like steel structure lifted from the poles that held it in place, sending the fence into the grandstands. The upward motion of the impact, as the investigation found, exploited the lack of tethering between the fences and the cement barriers they sat upon, leading the Houston track builders to devise their own fence-to-barrier connection system.
Another item of interest involved the lack of poles in the middle of each fence panel. The cement barriers are constructed with holes for three vertical support poles to be used with each section of fencing, with two outer holes serving as the primary anchor points for the fence and a center hole/post location to add resistance in the event of a strike.
Franchitti's crash managed to center-punch the fence, and without a middle pole to limit the fence's travel, its deformation and dislodging from its outer mountings was accelerated. New this weekend, three poles will be used in spectator areas, and it's believed three poles will also be used in areas deemed to have a higher likelihood of contact.
The final change from last year's return to Houston involves the repaving of the front straight. Although it did not pose a safety problem in the traditional sense, an uneven track surface saw many cars leaping over a large bump as drivers raced toward Turn 1. It's believed a hard jump and landing by points leader Helio Castroneves in Race 2 led to a gearbox failure which had a significant impact on his title chances, and the jump managed to wreak havoc on some of the other series at the event, including the Pro Mazda series, which reported a number of broken engines. According to Laniga, who stepped up to fund the aforementioned improvements on his own, drivers can expect a smooth ride to Turn 1, among other upgrades this weekend.
"We had some issues with Turn 1 we didn't find out about until the event started last year, and we have since removed that bumps a few weeks ago, tested it, then added some more concrete headed into Turn 1," he said. "We put a great deal of infrastructure money into it to make sure it won't be an issue for a long time and we tested it again. We did some grinding in other areas to make the track as smooth as possible, but as you know, it's a street course and it's going to be bumpy – but it's going to be safe.
"We took the grandstands out in [Turn 5], and also came up with an apparatus to tie the fences down and feel pretty comfortable about that. After last year's situation, the main priority has been safety for not only our drivers but for our fans."
Lanigan is hopeful the negative publicity surrounding the events of 2013 combined with temperatures expected to be in the 90s won't affect crowd size for the Shell & Pennzoil-sponsored Grand Prix.
"We knew going in the weather would be challenging, but I'm hopeful we'll at least equal last year's attendance," he noted. "We didn't have a choice on a date; IndyCar was flexible, but the Reliant folks had a lot of activities booked in April and May, we didn't want another late race where we go up against the NFL, so we were left with the option we had to choose. Hopefully the weather will be a little cooler than people expect it to be and we're hoping to have good walk-up traffic."