HOUSTON (AP) - It’s fitting, really, that Dario Franchitti’s frightening crash on the final lap of the Grand Prix of Houston is the one thing this season that has gotten IndyCar some mainstream attention.
Far be it for the beleaguered series to draw any interest for something other than a crash that injured 13 fans, an IndyCar official and left the three-time Indianapolis 500 winner hospitalized with a fractured spine and broken ankle.
The accident was replayed on television stations across the country and even made a morning show or two on Monday. It came with a hitch, though: At least one network mistakenly referred to IndyCar as NASCAR, and instead of recognizing Franchitti for his impressive racing resume, more than a few chose to identify him as the ex-husband of actress Ashley Judd.
That’s so IndyCar.
Then again, so was the entire visit to Houston, where IndyCar raced for the first time since 2007. Despite a dedicated promoter and strong corporate backing in title sponsor Shell-Pennzoil, the event was plagued before IndyCar even got on the track.
Construction on the course around Reliant Park could not begin until after the Houston Texans’ Sept. 29 game, so nobody had a clue there was a huge bump in the asphalt where Turn 1 would eventually be located. Once the bump was discovered, IndyCar was forced to delay track activity while it searched for a solution.
The temporary fix was to postpone qualifying and erect a chicane of tires that would force drivers go around the bump during two Friday practice sessions. Everything was fine _ until Josef Newgarden hit the chicane, knocking it into the path of points leader Helio Castroneves. He clipped it in the first of three different practice incidents, setting the stage for a disastrous weekend.
Track officials spent all night Friday grinding the bump, but it never solved the problem.
And after a gearbox issue in Saturday’s race trimmed Castroneves‘ 49-point lead over Dixon down to eight, that bump might have cost the Brazilian the championship.
Dixon saw Castroneves run over the bump Sunday _ “He hit really hard going through the Turn 1 kink there,” Dixon said _ and Castroneves essentially bottomed out when his car landed. The force broke his gearbox and sent him to the garage.
Castroneves now trails Dixon by 25 points with only the Oct. 19 season finale remaining.
Dixon wasn’t immune from one of those “only in IndyCar” moments, either.
Addressing the bump on Friday altered the weekend schedule, and qualifying for Sunday’s race was pushed to Sunday morning. But it rained, IndyCar canceled the session and set the field by entrant points. Because Castroneves had been penalized earlier this season, Dixon’s Chip Ganassi Racing team led the entrant points on Sunday morning and so Dixon was celebrated as the pole winner.
But sometime after the official pole-winner presentation, when the official sticker was placed on his car and after Dixon held a news conference to talk about starting the race from the pole, somebody decided to read the rule book. That’s when it was discovered that a doubleheader weekend isn’t split in determining the entrant points, and Castroneves was actually the pole-sitter.
Oh. Of course.