HOUSTON -- Race organizers for the 2014 Grand Prix of Houston say changes have been made to the Reliant Park race course to increase both driver and spectator safety after last year's crash that ended the racing career of 3-time Indy 500 champion and 4-time Indy Series winner Dario Franchitti.
Franchitti suffered a broken back, broken ankle and concussion in the inaugural event held on the parking lot surface around the Astrodome. Debris from his car penetrated the catch fence injuring several spectators. Franchitti retired after the Houston event.
Race organizers, who on Monday were placing the last of the more than 2,000 cement barriers along the race course, say changes are being made to improve the catch fence barrier and that extra distance will be placed between the cars and the spectators at key locations. And one particular grandstand has been moved completely.
"In high speed areas, yes, we have eliminated grand stands such as the grandstand involved in the incident last year that are in those areas where cars are going at the highest speeds," said Grand Prix Managing Director Austin Crossley.
Monday, three drivers temporarily traded in their Indy cars for forklifts, helping, albeit ceremonially, the race course staff place the last of those cement barricades. They included Takuma Sato with A.J. Foyt Racing, rookie Indy series driver Mikhail Aleshin, and current Indy Series points leader Will Power. Each of them praised the "challenging" course but the key word of the day was also "bumpy."
"It's unique. A unique track," said Sato. "It's very bumpy. But it's very challenging for us."
"Track is a bit bumpy and it has a lot of turns and not a lot of places to rest plus heat so you need to be very well prepared physically," said Aleshin.
"It's an awesome track," added Power. "It's built in a car park so there's low grip, the cars slide around a lot."
The race last year was held in October. Race organizers say moving the 2014 race to the end of June does create the likelihood of higher temperatures for both drivers and spectators to deal with. But they also say the three days of multiple races come with a variety of indoor family-oriented, and air-conditioned activities at NRG Arena.
Last year the race track had to be assembled in roughly 96 hours. This year the Grand Prix of Houston has four weeks to prepare.
The races are June 28 and 29.