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IndyCar race set for Houston

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HOUSTON (AP) - IndyCar added a race in Houston for the first weekend of October 2013, a step toward expanding the circuit's reach in the United States.

The Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston will be run on a temporary street course on the parking lots near Reliant Stadium, the home of the NFL's Houston Texans. Champ Car hosted a race there in 2006 and 2007, on a 1.7-mile course set up in the massive parking lots adjacent to the stadium. The race was cancelled when Champ Car merged with the IndyCar circuit in 2008.

Roger Penske and three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves joined officials from Harris County and Shell to make the announcement. Penske said Houston is a major market that is ideal for IndyCar's plans for expansion in the U.S.

"We need to have date equity, we need to be in places in cities that will support it," Penske said. "Racers give a lot back, and the opportunity to support many of the venues within the city will also be important."

The announcement was made at Redstone Golf Club, site of this week's Houston Open, also sponsored by Shell. The oil company and Penske entered into a cross-business alliance before the 2011 racing season.

CART, the predecessor of Champ Car, hosted a race on a street course in downtown Houston between 1998-2001. Increased construction in the city forced the cancellation of the race, but Champ Car announced it would return in 2006, at the Reliant site south of downtown.

"For me, it feels like we're going to a place where we're welcome," said Castroneves, who won last week's season opener in St. Petersburg, Fla. "I don't know why we left Houston. But the timing is right now to start all over again, and it's an important market. You're talking about the American and Latin-American community, and you're just expanding to areas that worked in the past."

Drivers in the Champ Car races complained about the rough, bumpy surface at Reliant Park, but Castroneves said organizers have plenty of time to work out the kinks.

"We have a long way to go, maybe the city can help, and we can find lines that can be suitable for the cars," Castroneves said. "Even with that, they were still able to bring it back here. I'm sure we're going to have a great time."

IndyCar chief executive officer Randy Bernard said the circuit is not only looking for more American venues, but specific markets that will make a "big difference" to sponsors, team owners and television partners.

This year's schedule has 16 events, and Bernard said the circuit wants to add up to three more races by next year, all in American cities.

"There is so much energy here in this market, we feel like we can really capitalize and make this one of the premier events on the circuit," Bernard said. "We're an American-based racing body, and I think we have a lot of momentum building. Our job is to create big events, and we feel like this can be one of our big events."

The city of Houston created a local organizing committee two years ago, and the efforts culminated in Wednesday's announcement. Mike Lanigan, the former lead promoter of Champ Car races in Houston and Cleveland, is the chairman and CEO of the new Houston race.

Bobby Rahal, a co-owner of a racing team with Lanigan, said the addition of the Houston race is exciting news for the circuit.

"I joined Mike several years ago to speak with the business community about the potential of having a Grand Prix," Rahal said, "and it was clear that there is a tremendous amount of local support for the event, which is critical for long-term success. It will be a marquee event for the series."

Shell and Pennzoil entered a multi-year agreement to sponsor the race, though race officials would not confirm how long the deal runs.

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