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Saturday, May 13, 2006
Updated: May 14, 6:42 PM ET
New course in Houston all wrong

By John Oreovicz
Special to ESPN.com

HOUSTON -- If Champ Car officials are the street racing experts -- and we have to assume they are, because they say so -- then how do they keep getting street circuits so wrong?

The latest case in point: The 1.615-mile temporary circuit that winds its way through Houston's Reliant Park. It's concrete-lined proof that any lessons that should have been learned by last summer's disaster in San Jose were not.

And those aren't the only examples. For every sublime new track like Edmonton, which came on board in 2005, there's another one that's ridiculous. Take the 2002-04 downtown Miami track with its 81-mph pole speed. Please.

It's clearly difficult to fashion a temporary street course that works for racing cars and spectators, which makes the good ones like Monaco, Macau, Long Beach, Toronto and Surfers Paradise all that much more special. But a poorly designed or executed street course is no fun for anybody.

The downtown Houston track used from 1998-2001 got ripped for its succession of boring, 90-degree turns. But until improvements are made to the new site, current Champ Car teams and drivers would love to be back there. The new circuit certainly looked great on paper, as a Sharpie doodle on a map of Reliant Park. Unfortunately, the execution came up painfully short.

"I told them two months ago when I was here for a media day that the track would need extensive grinding," said two-time defending series champion Sebastien Bourdais. "I guess I wasn't heard.

"It's a shame because this place is just beautiful," he added. "It has everything it needs to be one of the best street courses we've ever had. Unfortunately, it's bumpy enough that it ruins the attraction."

The new Turn 4, a long, flowing right-hander that winds around the Astrodome, should be a test of car handling and driver skill.

Instead, the talents of the shock engineers were showcased instead because the proper road racing line is so rough that the drivers were forced to skirt around the outside, as if they were riding the cushion in a sprint car. The cars porpoise down the pit straight like a '70s Formula 1 car in the days before ground effects were mastered.

At San Jose, after dodging a 150-mph chicane rendered in the form of an exposed concrete abutment, the drivers rocketed toward a 30-mph hairpin with no runoff area protecting a bank of grandstands.

At Houston, the drivers will fly down a similarly fast straight into a 90-degree left-hander. Again, no runoff, but this time an errant machine will plow directly into a stout building (the Reliant Center exhibition hall) instead of a grandstand.

Does the name "Clay Regazzoni" mean anything to these guys? Are they not aware that sometimes brakes (and other components) fail on racing cars? And that it's not just the drivers who need protection?

A bumpy track is one matter. But how did the Houston circuit get to the point where -- as at San Jose -- a lash-up chicane had to be constructed on the eve of practice in the name of safety?

Particularly when the entire track runs through a massive parking lot, leaving an almost unlimited number of better design options?

"It's unfortunate the track was designed the way it was," said a diplomatic Paul Tracy. "It's very frustrating when you show up here and find they put a corner right in front of a building with no runoff. It couldn't have taken much thought to see that there is a building at the end of the straight."

Given that a large hospitality tent was erected on the inside of the turn, just pulling it back a couple of hundred yards wasn't an option. Hence the 30-mph chicane, taking away the best (and probably only) corner for passing.

"The chicane is so slow, it doesn't do the cars or the racing justice," Tracy said. "It just wasn't thought out very well."

At San Jose, the cars were pitched into the air twice a lap as they bounded over railroad tracks. Houston features no rail lines, but if anything, the surface is even bumpier than San Jose. Or Sebring, or Cleveland, for that matter.

"It's by far the roughest track I've ever run on," said Bourdais. "It's definitely bumpier than San Jose. There is absolutely no comparison."

The good news is that Champ Car has demonstrated it can turn sow's ears into silk purses. The Grand Prix of Denver is a good example of how incremental improvements to the racetrack and the overall facility can transform the overall event. Lambasted in 2002, Denver is now arguably Champ Car's No. 2 domestic street race behind Long Beach.

The potential is there for Houston, too. Reliant Park has the infrastructure to make the event very convenient for fans and participants, and track improvements should be relatively easy to pull off. And the move to a night race was the right one, because conditions are much more bearable than during the daytime.

The state of Texas is an important market for open-wheel racing. It's a shame that in its current form, Champ Car's Grand Prix of Houston doesn't do the best job it could of showcasing the sport's appeal.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.