St. Petersburg Preview
Well, it’s almost here. No, I’m not talking about Day Two of the First Round of the NCAA Tournament – although that’s certainly something I’ll be paying attention to. Instead, we’re finally at the end of what seems like the longest offseason in history. Six and a half months is simply too long, but it’s finally over. Race weekend is here!
The Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg hasn’t always been the season opener, but it makes for a very nice way to begin the season. As recently as 2010, the season opened below the equator in Brazil (note to Jack Arute – not Japan). From 2005 through 2008, it was always after the season-opener at Homestead, sometimes even the third race. In 2003, the inaugural event opened the CART season.
Speaking of the 2003 race, there was a ceremony yesterday featuring the unveiling of the Dan Wheldon Memorial at the track. The plaque references that Wheldon won the Inaugural Honda Grand Prix in 2005. While that is technically true, CART did run a race at St. Petersburg in 2003 won by Paul Tracy. That race wasn’t sponsored by Honda, but that is a mere technicality. That reference sort of snubs the concept of merging all of the open-wheel records that INDYCAR has been so diligent in doing the last couple of years. Fortunately, the 2013 record book still contains stats from CART, Champ Car, USAC, AAA as well as IndyCar. But that didn’t keep several fans from getting riled up on Twitter last night. It’s not a dispute worth spoiling the day for the Wheldon family, but it is an issue disconcerting to a lot of fans.
Anyway, back to the 2013 edition…this is quickly becoming one of the premier events on the IZOD IndyCar season schedule. Even with Nashville being considered the “sunny south”, we’ve had temperatures in the lower twenties and some snow flurries just within the last couple of days. The warm breezes of Florida sound rather inviting to even casual race fans. We considered going down there more than once, but with us going to Barber in two weeks, it didn’t quite fit into the budget.
The event also looks great on television. The yachts in the harbor with bikini-clad passengers on board watching race cars go by, makes for a very nice television shot. The palm trees and the scenic downtown course along with packed stands on the main straightaway is a scene that would make anyone want to attend a race there.
I will watch this race with even more interest than usual. When Susan and I were on our honeymoon immediately after this past Indianapolis 500, we honeymooned on the beach just north of St. Petersburg. On our one rainy day, we drove into St. Pete to find the area where the race is run. We saw where the stands had been, but they had been taken down. Surprisingly, there is a painted outline throughout the year, to show where the track runs. I was also surprised to see the red and white curbs are there year round. I don’t know how I thought they were temporary, but I did. Finding them still there, I immediately pounded the curbs with our rental car, turning onto Dan Wheldon Way, while following the correct racing line. Unfortunately, it didn’t handle quite as well as a DW12 and we almost skidded out of control on the wet pavement. Immature behavior for someone in their mid-fifties, you say? I think not. Anyway, it’ll be easier to understand where the different turns are now that we’ve driven most of the layout.
For a street race, this is one of the better ones. There are some passing zones, especially at the end of the airport runway that makes up the main straightaway, where all the cars funnel into Turn One. If you’re a driver, you don’t want to be shuffled back to the rear of the pack and have to be at the mercy of your fellow competitors making it through Turn One cleanly. Many a race has been lost by someone being in the wrong place at the wrong time, simply because some impatient driver thought that would be the perfect place to try and pass ten cars at once.
Such unpredictability can be something of a wild card for the first race. Any driver that is expected to compete for the championship wants to make sure they leave St. Petersburg mostly unscathed. Dario Franchitti finished thirteenth at St. Petersburg last season and found himself in a hole that he could never really climb out of. It was even worse for Tony Kanaan. His Chevy engine ran into problems as he was leading the race and he finished twenty-fifth. The next week at Barber, he finished twenty-first. Although he rebounded somewhat after such a dreadful start – it was too much to overcome on his way to a ninth place finish last season.
Any championship contender leaving St. Petersburg with a top-five finish in hand should feel pleased. Winning is important in this race, but so is finishing strong. It’s a long season. It’s important to get off to a strong start and not fall too far behind. You don’t want your season over before the month of May.
Helio Castroneves is the defending champion for this race and is the only multiple winner of the event. In fact, Helio has won it three times! Other former St. Pete winners in the field are Dario Franchitti, Graham Rahal and Will Power. So who is my inaugural pick for the 2013 season? A driver who has been on the St. Petersburg podium multiple times, but has also had races there where he struggled. He is also the driver that is the defending series champion and will get his season off to a great start – Ryan Hunter-Reay. Hopefully, I haven’t cursed him.