Circuit type: Permanent road course
Houston, despite being the fourth largest city in the USA, has never been particularly well-served by motor racing circuits, so it's recent Champ Car and Indycar events have been held on street courses. Between 1998 and 2001 the downtown area was used for a series of popular races (with the motorsport-starved fans at least) but redevelopments in the area rendered the course unusuable thereafter. After a short hiatus, racing resumed, this time on a short 1.7-mile track winding through the parking lots of Reliant Stadium.
Designed by Martyn Thake, the course for the revived Grand Prix of Houston, featured a fast curving section around the perimeter of the famous Astrodome, as well as a series of medium and slow speed corners. Laid out on the asphalt surface of the lot, it was quite fast and frenetic, if a little bumpy. The inaugural event in May 2006 was something of a first for the ChampCar and ALMS series, as it became the first street race held at night under artificial lighting.
The track received largely positive reviews from the drivers, though concern was raised about the safety of the left hand bend at the end of the main pit straight (originally corner two, now the third turn of the revised course). To solve the problem, track officials built a bus stop chicane after first practice to slow speeds into the turn. While perhaps not the most elegant solution ever seen on a racing circuit, it did its job and arguably created a better overtaking opportunity. The ALMS night race proved a race of attrition; the winning Audi R8 of Allan McNish and Dindo Capello had a five lap lead over the next finisher, the winnig GT1 entry from Corvette Racing. In the Champ Car race Mario Domínguez won the pole, his first and only of his career, but Sebastian Bourdais moved through from fifth on the grid to take the victory.
For 2007, a revised and more flowing chicane was installed, while the sections of parking lot used for the race were paved in concrete. Again Champ Car and ALMS races were the headline acts, though the night racing concept had been abandoned. The course also acquired a new sponsor and name: JAGFlo Speedway. Sebastian Bourdais again won again for Newman-Hass/Lanigan Racing in Champ Car, while the ALMS event was the first of a number that year in which the Penske-run Porsche RS Spyders in the LMP2 class defeated the theoretically superior class LMP1 cars.
Both events at Reliant Park had seen three day crowds in excess of 150,000 and the future seemed bright. The city was happy too; analysis showed the event brought in around $36 million dollars of business to the area. However, the merger between Champ Car and the IRL saw no room on the unified schedule for the Houston race and 2008's event was cancelled. The loss of the date on the schedule didn't sit well with city leaders, and they immediately began the push to revive the event.
Four years of lobbying paid off when Shell/Pennzoil signed on as naming right's sponsor and the event was again included on the Indycar schedule, this time as a double header event, with races on Saturday and Sunday. Proceedings got off to a bump, quite literally, in first practice, when it transpired that the preceeding years had not been kind to the track surface just after turn one. A massive bump had formed which sent the cars airborne. A temporary chicane made of tyre bundles was hastily inserted for the remainder of practice before construction workers and track officials worked through the night to regrind the surface to ease the bump considerably. It was, however, still to play a part in the races and, ultimately, the championship outcome.
Series leader going into the event, Helio Castroneves had a shocker of a weekend, car problems destroying what had been strong runs in both races - most notably when his car bottomed out going over the infamous bump in race two, destryoing his gearbox - and points lead - in the process. Scott Dixon and Will Power took the victories, while the second race was marred by a serious collision on the final lap, when Dario Franchitti and Takuma Sato collided, sending Franchitti's car airborne into the catch fencing. Debris was sent flying into the crowd, injuring 13 fans and an Indycar official. Franchitti fractured his spine, broke his right ankle and suffered a concussion in the collision, which subsequently led him to end his storied driving career on medical advice.
For 2014, the event was moved to a mid-season slot, well before the NFL season starts, allowing for more time to construct the course (in 2013 there was a tight turnaround between a Houston Texans game). This has allowed for a total resurfacing of the troublesome turn one area, which eliminated the bump once and for all. However, the timing meant the race was run in the heat of summer, proving to be punishing for all concerned. Promoter Mike Lanigan decided that it was a step too far and decided to call time on the event once more, electing not to host further races.
The Grand Prix of Houston course was located at NRG (formerly Reliant) Park, in the parking lots of NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas.