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Houston track takes toll on cars, drivers

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IndyCar’s weekend in Houston got underway with Dario Franchitti’s career-ending crash in the back of everyone’s mind.

Consequently, much of the talk centered on how rough the track was last year and whether meaningful improvements had been made. Street courses are notoriously rough.

After all, like most public motorways, they are subject to changes created by use. In Houston they don’t face the problems created by freezing and thawing, but they still are used daily.

The event’s promoter, Mike Lanigan’s group, had been unable to get access to the track until the week of the race last year because the Houston Texans were using the area. Consequently, nobody was aware of the critical bump in the racing surface until opening day.

Track workers altered the course by inserting a temporary chicane, and they worked overnight grinding on the bump. In the end, their efforts fell short, and Franchitti launched over the bump and into the catch fence. In addition to Franchitti, who suffered career-ending injuries, 13 fans and an IndyCar official were injured by airborne debris.

Following the race, Lanigan, a part-owner in Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, assessed the situation and vowed to do everything possible to ensure that nobody was injured again. In preparation for this year’s race, Lanigan spent $1 million reworking the 10-turn, 1.68-mile street circuit in Houston’s Reliant Park in preparation for this year’s race.

The resulting track was still bumpy, but it was raceable. And, as Steve Kinser has often opined, “Track’s the same for everybody.” Of course, there are few IndyCar drivers in Kinser’s league in the intestinal fortitude department. Ask Sammy Swindell.

Although I’m not a big fan of road courses in general and street courses in particular, the IndyCars put on a great show in the Sunday finale of the two-race weekend. There was racing for position all of the way around the track.

Helio Castroneves was intent on catching Will Power in the points chase, and he was setting up Simon Pagenaud for the pass. However, he apparently didn’t see Sebastian Bourdais running alongside him. As he darted across the track, he and Bourdais wound up in the same spot. Castroneves went hard into the fence.

Rain dampens series

If there is anything that the USAC Silver Crown series doesn’t need it’s bad luck. The series had scheduled a 100-lap race to be run June 29 at Memphis International Raceway, a track not visited in 10 years by USAC’s senior series.

To add to the race’s importance, the series points were tied with Tracy Hines and Kody Swanson at the top of the standings. Bobby East is driving the Tony Stewart Racing Silver Crown car, and he is only 27 points behind Swanson and Hines and is attempting to become the first driver in the 44-year history of the series to win three consecutive Silver Crown championships.

The race originally was expected to get a shot in the arm from participation by NASCAR Sprint Cup Driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Stenhouse previously drove a Silver Crown car for Tony Stewart.

In addition to Sunday being an off date for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, it also gave Stenhouse the opportunity to race for his hometown fans. Stenhouse is from nearby Olive Branch, Mississippi, a small town located about midway between Memphis and Tupelo, Mississippi.

The battle for the points lead will now go to Lucas Oil Raceway in Clermont on July 24 and the running of the J.D. Byrider 100. Going into the July 24 race, the balance in the top 10 in Silver Crown points are Chris Windom, Jacob Wilson, Bobby Santos III, A.J. Fike, Jerry Coons Jr., Caleb Armstrong and Jarrett Andretti.

Midget season ramps up Business is about to pick up for Keith Kunz Motorsports. The tough part of the season got underway with the Pepsi Nationals at Angell Park Speed at Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, on Friday and continues today. From the Prairie, they go to Solomon Valley Raceway at Beloit, Kansas.

From Beloit, they make the short trip to the Belleville (Kansas) High Banks July 31 through Aug. 2. Then, they have until Aug. 17 to regroup before going back to the Prairie. They then have more than a month to get ready for the USAC 4 Crown Nationals at Tony Stewart’s Eldora Speedway on Sept. 20.

Next on the schedule is the three-day Gold Crown Nationals at Tri-City Speedway at Granite City, Illinois. This is a real high-dollar, three-day program, and they will have the cars ready to battle with the rest of the best midgets in the land.

I asked Pete Willoughby how it was to have two of his drivers running wheel to wheel for a big feature win.

“You just hope your third guy is close enough to the front to win if the first two guys take each other out,” he said.

Of course, they would like to finish 1-2-3, and they often do.

Tim McKinney writes a weekly racing column for The Republic. He can be reached at 379-5632.

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