The IZOD IndyCar Series will be returning to Houston in 2013, with confirmation on Wednesday that next year's calendar now includes the Grand Prix of Houston to be held on the 1.7-mile, 10-turn circuit at Reliant Park on the weekend of October 4-6.
“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," said IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard. “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."
US open wheel racing last featured at Houston in 2006 and 2007 in the Champ Car World Series, with both races won by Sebastien Bourdais - who was duly excited by the news that Houston would be on the calendar again from next year.
“We have had our share of success in Houston so I'm happy to see it back on the schedule,” said Bourdais. "I'm looking forward to the challenge. It's a really hard course. It's what we call concrete racing and it's not easy."
The race has multi-year title sponsorship from Shell and Pennzoil, and the CEO of the event will be Mike Lanigan, co-owner of the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team.
“We are thrilled to be returning to Houston,” said Lanigan. "“The Grand Prix was very successful in 2006 and 2007, with big crowds at Reliant Park witnessing an exciting three-day festival of speed. In 2013 it will be better than ever.”
The announcement is set to be just the first of a number of new venues joining the series in 2013, with Randy Bernard having previously stated that he would like to see as many as 19 or 20 events on the calendar.
Other candidates in line to join the IndyCar line-up include a street course at Fort Lauderdale, a new road course in Palm Springs and the peerless four-mile road course at Elkhart Lake. Another former Champ Car favourite at the Portland International Raceway is also a potential addition.
It also emerged in recent weeks that Bernard had even been cold-called by race organisers in Queensland about a possible return to Surfers Paradise on Australia's Gold Coast, a long-time favourite venue with drivers and especially the Australian contingent led by Penske's Will Power and Ryan Briscoe. However, the cost and logistics of a long-distance fly-away event together with the time zone difference with the US is thought to make this unlikely, and team owner Chip Ganassi has already spoken out
recently against adding more non-US races to the calendar above those in Canada, Brazil and China.
As well as all the street and road course options there are also a number of possible oval courses in the picture, with the one-mile, low-banked tri-oval Phoenix International Raceway (which last saw Indy cars race in 2005), the 0.75-mile asphalt D-oval at Richmond International Raceway (used by the Indy Racing League from 2001 until 2007) and the unique 2.5-mile tri-oval at Pocono (which last hosted a CART race in 1989) all being mentioned as possible hosts for races in 2013 or beyond.
"I've been doing a lot of traveling and talking to try and see who is serious about racing with us," Bernard said.
The new 3.4-mile F1 circuit at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin has also been much-mentioned as wanting to add IndyCar to the roster of events at the new facility, but with the now-confirmed Grand Prix of Houston together with the existing event at the Texas Motor Speedway, there is a possibility that even the huge Lone Star State might be stretched too thin to provide crowds sufficient to support all three events.
There's speculation that it's Texas that might end up dropping off the calendar after 2012, especially after an ongoing row erupted between TMS president Eddie Gossage and IndyCar drivers about the safety of the speedway resulting in angry exchanges over a mooted driver boycott of the race on safety grounds.
Texas is a high-banked 1.5-mile oval track, making it worryingly similar in many people's minds to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway where a 15-car accident last October claimed the life of Dan Wheldon. Although the official inquiry into the accident concluded that the cause was due to the interaction between the old-model IndyCar and the unique nature of LVMS, a number of drivers and experts fear that a similar conjunction of factors and other safety issues could occur at Texas with the new DW12 chassis.
Gossage is also said to be less than happy at having lost the prestigious next race slot following the Indianapolis 500, which usually benefits from a boost after all the media coverage of the Indy 500. In 2012, the 'next after Indy' slot has been filled by the return to the IndyCar calendar of the Detroit Grand Prix at Belle Isle.