By: Spencer Neff
March 21, 2019 | 1:58 PM
Thank you as always to everyone who participated in our Twitter poll for this week’s IndyCar Flashback! The NTT IndyCar Series will make its debut at Circuit of The Americas this weekend, so in celebration of the inaugural IndyCar Classic, we went back to the debut of the last road/street course race in the Lone Star State: the Grand Prix of Houston.
The Fan Vote winner and subject of the latest IndyCar Flashback is the 1998 Texaco Grand Prix of Houston. Unpredictability became a recurring theme in the race, however, the winner would be a driver who had started a hot streak earlier in the season.
Franchitti dominates rain-soaked Inaugural Grand Prix of Houston
After 17 years away from Texas, American open-wheel racing returned to a second venue in as many years. Unlike 1997’s debut at the 1.5-mile oval – Texas Motor Speedway – the CART FedEx Championship series would run a street course.
The series was set to run on the downtown streets of Houston. Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Zanardi clinched the championship in Vancouver two races earlier, and with the two-time champion set to move back to Formula 1 for 1999, several drivers were out to prove something for the next season.
Rain had delayed the initial start of the race by 37 minutes. Once the weather had settled, Forsythe Racing’s Greg Moore started the race on pole, his third of 1998 and second on a street course. Like the series did at Mid-Ohio, the race would start on the backstretch. Additionally, the series declared a wet start and from the beginning, the standing water still on track proved treacherous.
Team Kool Green’s Dario Franchitti quickly overtook Moore for the lead on the opening lap. Further back, Walker Racing’s Gil de Ferran spun just past the first corner and tagged Team Rahal’s Bryan Herta, who had won his first race three weeks earlier at Laguna Seca. Team Penske’s Al Unser Jr. also spun in that area.
Due to the spins, a full-course yellow was called. Newman-Haas’ Michael Andretti pitted during the yellow with steering issues. At the Lap 4 restart, Moore spun and collected Andretti’s teammate, Christian Fittipaldi. The day had ended rather quickly for all three drivers.
When the race restarted on Lap 10, Franchitti pulled away from teammate Paul Tracy and the field. While the racing surface attempted to dry, drivers were continually being challenged to find grip on the moist track.
On Lap 13, Robby Gordon (Arciero Wells Racing) and Michel Jourdain Jr. (Dale Coyne Racing) made contact in Turn 11. The contact and resulting blocked track prompted the race to be red flagged.
Following the brief stop, the field settled in for a green-flag stretch of 23 laps. The long run allowed Franchitti to continue his pace as drivers began to switch to slick tires. Once PacWest Racing’s Mark Blundell pitted for slicks, that all changed.
Blundell drew even with Franchitti’s lap times within the next six laps. Several drivers would soon follow Blundell’s move. Amidst the changes, the sun began to appear in the Texas sky. With Franchitti’s lead shrinking rapidly, the leader pitted to switch off his rain tires.
Moments later, Forsythe Racing suffered another setback when Patrick Carpentier plowed into the tire barrier on Lap 39, ending his day. During the caution, Team Penske’s Andre Ribeiro spun in Turn 5, continuing a day full of twists and turns.
On Lap 49, the Team Kool Green drivers would face off for an infamous CART duel. During the battle, Tracy dove to the inside of Franchitti in Turn 1. The two made contact and Tracy’s Reynard-Honda spun and suffered left-front suspension and front wing damage.
After he drove his car back to the pits, Tracy got into a heated discussion with car owner Barry Green. The contact with his teammate allowed Franchitti to pull away even further. During the next set of pit stops, cars began to switch back to rain tires with the weather taking a turn for the worse.
On Lap 68, the yellow flag flew for the sixth time as visibility began to go away. Two laps later the checkered flag flew, putting the exhausting race to an end. When the (mist) had settled, Franchitti had earned his third career win – all in a four-race span.
In second, Zanardi extended his record for most podium finishes in a season to 13. Tasman Motorsports rookie Tony Kanaan equaled his Laguna Seca effort with a third-place finish, and as a result, TK also secured the CART Rookie of the Year award for 1998.
Following the race, Barry Green downplayed his spat with Tracy and praised his drivers’ efforts throughout the weekend. Franchitti moved within six points of second-place Jimmy Vasser with two races to go.
After finishing third in the 1998 points standings, Franchitti’s hot streak continued into 1999. That year, he earned three more wins and narrowly lost the title on a tiebreaker to Juan Pablo Montoya – who had replaced Zanardi at CGR.
Tracy, along with Franchitti, would both stay with Team Kool Green through 2002. Franchitti even followed the team to the Indy Racing League when it became Andretti Green Racing.
1999’s Grand Prix of Houston served as a bit of redemption for Tracy, as he dominated and led a 1-2 finish with Franchitti. CART continued to race in Houston through 2001.
In 2006, a new circuit around Reliant Park debuted and the series raced there in 2007 as well. After a six-year break, the track played host to doubleheader weekends for the IndyCar Series in 2013 and 2014.