My Weekend in St. Pete's – Part I

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The newly branded Verizon IndyCar Series started off beautifully last weekend. So much so, that I am already in withdrawal. How about you? I thought now would be a great time to recap the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg – it was certainly a kick off to remember with history being made by Will Power (3 victories in a row across two separate seasons), memories being made with friends & fellow fans, and of course with a race that yielded a couple unexpected moments (some would call them controversial) and a safe ending, which is always a good thing.

Let’s take a look back at some of the moments you probably remember and a few things that I was lucky enough to experience first-hand and want to share with all of you! There was so much in fact, that this is the first part of a two-part article. Look for the second half later this week.

FRIDAY, MARCH 28th, 2014

PRACTICE #1

Friday consisted of two IndyCar practice sessions. Besides Bourdais finding himself off the track with 11 minutes to go in the first session, the initial practice went off without a hitch. However, it did not go off without Hinch. He was actually the fastest lap during the morning. He mentioned the importance of the first practice of the season, “We get so little track time and need to use every lap of testing and practice you get, so you can’t lollygag too much.” (Side note: anyone else saying lollygag would probably make me giggle… but it’s Hinch, so it seems strangely commonplace.) Unfortunately, the first time on track that weekend was the opposite of how he ended his weekend. He did not repeat his victory, nor did he get another surfboard for his living room. Starting from the back of field hurt him and he wasn’t able to fight his way through like he had hoped, finding himself at the back of the pack from beginning to end. Hopefully the west coast of the country will be better to him this coming weekend than the west coast of Florida was this past weekend.

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Justin Wilson ran second fastest in this session & then continued on to session 2 with the 7th fastest time. Justin was hoping for more consistency on Friday but did state a goal of finishing in the Top 10 on Sunday. He & his team achieved this with an 8th place spot at the conclusion of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete’s. Goals are made for attaining and Justin has shown he is capable of that – I look forward to him attaining higher ones as the season progresses.

DARIO FRANCHITTI

Dario Franchitti was on hand for the first IndyCar race weekend of 2014. He spoke on the recent announcement that he would be driving the pace car at the 98th Indianapolis 500 next month. Divulging that he has already done some test laps in the 2014 Chevrolet Camaro Z28, he smiled and admitted, “It was good fun!” Dario fielded questions about the after-effects of his concussion, explaining that some memories are not as sharp but is very glad to still be an active team member of Chip Ganassi member. When asked about his official title, he explained that they were still working on it. He’s lending advice and coaching to the four drivers currently racing for CGRT, including Tony Kanaan, who took over responsibilities of the #10 Target car once Dario announced his medically-advised retirement after last season concluded. Tony even made a surprise appearance at Dario’s conference, sneaking up behind him on stage & waiting for him to notice… in classic Dario fashion, he was anything but frazzled, instead offering some joking words to his friend and getting a hug before TK ran off as quickly as he’d appeared.

Moments like those make me smile like a kid on Christmas morning. It’s no secret that I love the personalities of IndyCar as much as I love the cars & the racing itself. Not sure I could ever pick one over the other… it’s the total package of the series that has me addicted.

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PRACTICE #2

Graham Rahal, driving the #15 National Guard Honda, was second fastest in the second practice session. He discussed having a new engineering team, confidently stating, “We have a good car, very consistent.” Rahal made comments about his high hopes for the weekend, mentioning that qualifying is going to be a very important component to his success in this race and throughout the new season. He also had the opportunity to speak on his new primary sponsor:

“I’m an American and for me to represent the National Guard… you ought to be excited by it. It’s something that’s far more than a sponsor on your chest. You’re representing hundreds of thousands of people – there’s so much pride. Today, several veterans came up to me and thanked me for representing The Guard and I said they didn’t need to thank me… if anything it needs to go the other way. But that’s a cool thing, it’s a lot of fun to be out there in the red, white and blue.”

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The fastest session time in the second practice of the day was completed by the A.J. Foyt Racing driver, Takuma Sato, in the #14 ABC Supply Honda. Sato commented, “We made good progress during this session. I am happy with the balance and the boys and the team worked really well today. Let’s hope this continues and we will work for speed tomorrow.” It turns out this was a goal that came to fruition for Sato.

SATURDAY, MARCH 29th, 2014

PRACTICE #3

Ryan Briscoe was atop the fast times board on Saturday morning. When asked what part of the track he & his team are looking at the most, the Chip Ganassi Racing Team driver explained that he tries to look at the track as a whole but if discussing specific corners where they can look to improve, he states, “For me, yesterday, it was turn 10. I’m not sure if I’m still great there. It’s always been a bit of a tough corner for me.” Briscoe wasn’t the only one who felt that way about Turn 10. Saavedra found himself off the course at T10 during the 2nd practice on Friday and many of the support series drivers experienced the same outcome while trying to maneuver through. This corner is one of the most difficult on the 13-turn track, forcing IndyCar drivers specifically, to bring their cars from 155mph on average, down to about 71mph… oh and let’s not forget that they have less than the length of a football field to do so AND they need to get it done in 1.88 seconds.

But racecar drivers aren’t “athletes” and anyone can drive a car fast, right?
Yeah. Right.

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INDY FANS TWEET UP WITH AMY & PIPPA

Late Saturday morning at St. Pete’s was crowded by ominous clouds, but the other crowd was in front of the Mahaffey Center for the 2nd IndyFans Tweet Up of the 2014 season – hosted by Amy (better known to many as @openwheelmom on Twitter and of course, IndyCar driver & current IndyCar Radio commentator, Pippa Mann! Dozens of IndyCar fans showed up to the event, putting faces to handles and talking motorsports with like-minded individuals is such a treat. If you haven’t been able to attend one of these events yet, please make sure you do so! Follow @indyfanstweetup to receive updates on the details for upcoming race weekends. There will be another one at the Grand Prix of Long Beach next weekend, so be sure to check it out, meet your fellow IndyCar tweeters and of course take some selfies! If you would like to see the fun that is guaranteed, be sure to check out Pippa’s official “Behind the Scenes” album… featuring great shots of the Tweet Up from Pippa, @morefrontwing, and even a pic that I took of some friends! Thanks again to Amy & Pippa for their never-ending work on these events – uniting #indyfamily is a big step in the right direction for the solidarity and continued patronage of this sport and we are all very grateful for what you both do.

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SEVERE WEATHER ADVISORY

Shortly after the completion of the Tweet Up, we all went our separate ways around the track. That however, was short-lived, as a Severe Weather Advisory was issued and included a Tornado Watch. Everyone was asked to take cover in the nearby structures inside the track. We knew that rain or a storm of some sort would make an appearance during the weekend. It’s tradition! In the 10-year history of the event, inclement weather has always affected the schedule – either during practice, qualifications, or the race itself. I heard a lot of pessimism during this downtime, and rightfully so… it did look pretty grim as far as fitting everything in to the end of the day once the front passed, but I had a feeling deep down that we would get IndyCar qualifications in. I actually have proof of that mindset, because I did a quick write-up during the storm. See the details from the “in the moment” post I put up that afternoon.

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STADIUM SUPER TRUCKS

After the storm passed, an updated schedule was released with shortened races for most of the support series. Unfortunately, the Pirelli World Challenge series was the only group that did not get a rescheduled Race #1 – they ended up only having one race (on Sunday) instead of the two that were scheduled for the duration of the weekend. Once the weather advisory was lifted, fans and media emerged from the Mahaffey Center, the airport terminal building, and the paddock garage in order to watch some more racing… and boy did they get a show with the Stadium Super Trucks! The added puddles and wetness on the track just made these guys race even crazier than usual. The drifting in corners and splashdowns from the ramp jumps were bonuses for the fans… Some of the stands should have had “splash zone” signs on the first few rows! These guys were a breath of fresh air and really got the crowd pumped up after the multiple hour delay.

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I hope to see SST added on to more IndyCar weekends in coming seasons – they are so entertaining to watch, even evoking laughter from the fans. If you haven’t yet seen them live, make plans to do so! I’m looking forward to seeing them on track again on May 31st and June 1st for the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix weekend. Don’t forget, that will be the first doubleheader of the IndyCar season as well! Get your tickets for this event, NOW. If you love racing, you’ll have SEVEN different series to watch that weekend… not to mention a beautiful view of Detroit, Windsor and the lush landscape of Belle Isle itself. I attended last year and all it took was that one experience for me to make it a staple in my IndyCar travels, going forward.

INDYCAR QUALIFYING

Now, back to the action in St. Pete’s! Qualifying was delayed to the 5 o’clock hour but we got it in, and that’s all that mattered – because even though opinions in the world of IndyCar can vary drastically, it seemed that no one wanted to determine line up for Sunday, based on last year’s points! The first two groups went out (11 cars each) and we filtered it down to the 6 fastest from each group. Those top 12 then went out in a third round determining the Firestone Fast Six. The Fast Six compete in order to set the first 3 rows for the race on Sunday, including the pole position winner.

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FIRESTONE FAST SIX

Sato had mentioned after practice sessions on Friday that he & his team at A.J. Foyt Racing would be working on speed for Saturday’s rounds. While he found himself running 7th during the final practice on Saturday morning, he certainly got that speed he was looking for later in the day during qualifying – coming away with the pole position and winning the Verizon P1 award for the first race of the season.

Defending Indianapolis 500 Champion, Tony Kanaan landed on the front row to start the new season with his new team, Chip Ganassi Racing. After landing in P2, Tony said, “It feels good not to see 17 cars in front of me for the start. I’m happy!” He was looking great in red and ready to take that green flag right alongside Sato on Sunday!

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Andretti Autosport’s highest position after qualifying was P3 and that was held by Ryan Hunter-Reay – back in his familiar #28 for 2014 and ready to shine as bright as the sun on raceday in his yellow DHL-sponsored Honda twin turbo DW12. Ryan admitted enjoying the changing track conditions throughout qualifying, saying that he found it challenging and fun.

Completing the 2nd row was Will Power. This was the first time in 5 seasons that Will didn’t win the Verizon P1 award, but he was happy with his run and hoping to get things right for raceday. He may not have started the race from P1… but that’s where he ended it. And if you ask any driver, I think they would agree how you finish a race is much more important than how you start.

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Scott Dixon was glad to qualify 15 spots better than last year at St. Pete’s. The current IndyCar Series Champion stated St. Pete’s is the best place to kick off the season, even though the track isn’t his favorite for flat-out speed.

Marco Andretti was the 2nd car representing Andretti Autosport in the Firestone Fast Six. He mentioned in a post-qualifying conference that his goal was just to keep track position tomorrow and was glad to have saved a set of Firestone reds for raceday. He qualified P6 for the Sunday start. Unfortunately, racing is unpredictable and no matter what your plan is… it might not mesh with another driver’s, which can ruin a seemingly smooth day. More on that in Part II…

As I stated earlier, that second half of the article will be coming out this week. Please stay tuned to my Twitter and More Than A Fan Wheels in order to check it out! I can’t wait to share all the happenings of raceday with you… it was quite an adventure, to say the least!

UPDATED: Keep reading… here is Part II!