My Weekend in St. Pete's – Part II

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I am a woman of my word. Not only did I pack the Florida sunshine as my carry-on and bring it home to Cleveland (if only for 18 hours on Tuesday, April 1st), but I also promised to share with you the conclusion of my trip to St. Petersburg for the 2014 IndyCar season kick off. Check out Part I first, if you haven’t yet…

SUNDAY, MARCH 30th, 2014

WAIT, WHAT?!

Honestly, the first part of my raceday experience was one I couldn’t have imagined. In fact, it’s still kind of surreal to me. I was setting up my laptop and updating social media when I heard a kind voice ask, “Do you want to go for a ride in a pacecar?” I’m pretty sure I remained relatively cool but if I was a German Shepherd, my ears would have perked straight up and my head would’ve nearly twisted off in wonder and potential excitement. I looked in the direction of the woman who had asked a colleague this question. By some streak of luck, after their conversation had ended, she looked over at me and pointed, asking, “Would you like to go too?” Go ahead and guess my response…

Needless to say, about 15 minutes later I was trackside, signing a waiver and getting wristbanded with 3 other lucky individuals. I got into the waiting 2014 Chevrolet Camaro, sharing the ride with a gentleman who was gracious enough to let me sit up front with our driver. I was pleasantly surprised to sit down, look to my side and shake hands with Stefan Wilson. A few seconds of seatbelt buckling and exchanging pleasantries and we were off like a rocket! We tore through the track around the hairpin turn, hugging the harrowing turn 10 and flying down the straight-aways. WHAT A RUSH!!! I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face for the duration of the lap and I even remember not being able to hold back laughter through turns 8 and 9. It was more fun than I can hope to express in words. If you EVER get the opportunity to be driven around a street circuit or road course with a professional IndyCar driver, I HIGHLY suggest taking it. It was my first time doing this but I sure hope it’s not the last. WOW.

(Shout out & big thanks to Judy & Nick for making this happen!)

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WARM UPS

The morning session was relatively smooth. There was only one incident and it produced a 5 minute red flag. Penske driver, Juan Pablo Montoya, in the #2 Verizon Chevy overshot T10 and found himself in the tire barrier. He sustained front wing damage and needed assistance from the Safety Team to get back on the track.

At the end of the 45 minute warm up, Andretti Autosport driver Carlos Munoz had run the fastest lap overall and tied Graham Rahal for getting the most laps in with 87 a piece. Munoz mentioned that his focus was not to be P1 off the bat, stating that it was more important to run that position in the last ten laps of the race. Unfortunately, Munoz was not able to attain that, finishing 17th in the first race of his rookie year. The top 5 in the morning warm ups were rounded out by Josef Newgarden, Sebastien Bourdais, Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti. Interestingly, all 4 of these drivers opted to start the race on the black primary tires. Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball & Simon Pagenaud went with the same strategy while the remainder of the 22-car field chose to start out on red alternates.

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HINCH’S COMMEMORATIVE PLAQUE CEREMONY – DAN WHELDON & VICTORY CIRCLE MONUMENT

Originally, this ceremony was supposed to take place on Saturday afternoon, but due to the Severe Weather Advisory over the span of a few hours, it was rescheduled for raceday. I think this was perfect since we were graced with consistently sunny skies on Sunday, for the first time all weekend. It was almost like someone was looking down on us from above and letting us know he was still there in his adopted-hometown and at his favorite place in the world: the racetrack. We miss you, Danny.

Dan Wheldon won the inaugural Grand Prix of St. Petersburg back in 2005 and his name adorns the top left corner of the Victory Circle monument. James Hinchcliffe is now the newest name engraved on it and Hinch was careful to make sure it stayed that way, widening his stance to push against the plaque with all his strength to make sure it didn’t fall off… and evoking laughter from the whole crowd. Classic Hinch. He spoke on how meaningful this all was for him, minutes after the installation:

“It was an emotional win last season, for a lot of reasons… to have it permanently up there now, next to Dan’s monument, is pretty special. You can see the sign for Dan Wheldon Way from here and his face is right beside it… so it’s pretty cool.”  

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ED CARPENTER RACING – INDY 500 ANNOUNCEMENT

Ed Carpenter & JR Hildebrand were both on hand on race morning to announce a new primary partnership for Ed Carpenter Racing – specifically for the second car that the team will run at the 2014 Indianapolis 500. The #21 Chevy will “bear” the logo of Preferred Freezer Services this May. It was previously announced that JR Hildebrand will be driving this second entry for ECR.

Ed fielded a few questions – one of them in regards to the possibility of JR driving for ECR on a more permanent basis. “Hopefully it’s something we can build on,” Ed explained. He has struggled during parts of his career and relates to what JR is facing now with instability, going from part time to full time to part time, saying that, “Everything happens for a reason and hopefully this is the first step to a bigger relationship.”

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THE 10TH ANNUAL FIRESTONE GRAND PRIX OF ST. PETERSBURG

Hands down, my favorite part of this race was watching the stealthy moves of Mike Conway, as he started from the halfway point of the pack taking the green, and fought his way to the front, so quiet and smooth that he went relatively unnoticed… except by yours truly, of course:

 

Conway actually ended up leading one lap and then due to an unfortunate misinterpretation with a hand-signal communication by the pace car, he was penalized for passing it and had to serve a drive-through penalty. The “wave-by” was meant for James Hinchcliffe’s car only, in order to get back on the lead lap. Conway ended up back in 16th by the time they came to the checkered flag. Like I said that day though, I really think Conway is one to keep an eye on this season – he’s got a finesse on the road courses and street circuits that is impressive to watch and should lead him to some podiums if not outright victories with Ed Carpenter Racing. Looking forward to seeing what he brings to Long Beach this coming weekend.

In a post from race morning, I made some predictions and voiced some hopes I had for the rookies in the field at St. Pete’s. Let’s take a look back at those and see how they compared to the box score:

Mikhail Aleshin started P15 and finished P12. I had said maintaining position would be a success for him but making it in to the Top 10 would be a good goal. It looks like he was aiming for something similiar and ended up producing a safe & solid run for his first career IndyCar race.

Sadly, Jack Hawksworth did not get that same credit. He was knocked out on Lap 83 when the “controversial” restart tactics of leader, Will Power, created a domino effect in the pack when he lifted from first gear approaching the start/finish line. The back up also created contact with Carlos Munoz and Ryan Briscoe who were able to proceed, but ended up taking out Marco Andretti. This advantageous maneuver, or “trick” as Helio Castroneves referred to it, brought out the second and final full course yellow of the day. Will Power, the ultimate victor of the day, stuck to his guns in post-race interviews, insisting that he never touched his brakes during the restart. I do not doubt the truth to this. But that may be why Helio referred to this as a trick. When asked whether the obvious and sudden slowing of Power’s car could be caused by downshifting, Ryan Hunter-Reay simply stated,

“A lift in first gear is like hitting the brakes.”

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He went on to explain that Power slowing for advantage was not unexpected, but this pack up was a pretty bad one. He explained that the restart point is later than last year, causing the drivers to have to hussle to get to that point & then slow to pace speed. He summed it all up by saying, “They need to iron that out quick.”

Moving back to my focus on the rookie-progress at St. Pete’s this year, my next prediction was about Carlos Huertas. I assumed he would aim to finish all 110 laps, feel things out but not make any huge moves… he did indeed complete all the laps in his first race and he lost only 1 position, finishing in P18.

Munoz unfortunately did not end up as high as I had hoped to see him on the final numbers – due to being involved in the Lap 83 incident during restart, he fell 10 spots from his starting point of P7 and came in with a 17th place finish along his rookie year “classmate”, Huertas.

The last few stats I want to share with you are the big movers of the race. Josef Newgarden, in the #67 Florida Lottery Honda for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, started in last place and finished in P9 for a gain of 13 positions! Very impressive! However, where there is a high there is also a low. Marco Andretti, driving the #25 Snapple Honda for Andretti Autosport lost 16 positions from green to checkered and was only able to complete 82 laps because of the aforementioned accident. A 22nd place finish is certainly not what Andretti had in mind, so hopefully he will have better luck in the second race of the season at Long Beach – he finished in the Top 10 at the Southern California street circuit last year.

My final moments in St. Pete’s wrapped up with one driver calling another “a wanker” and then justifying why it was said with love and in the spirit of camaraderie. I’m not exactly sure if one understood the other (or was ready to joke around) but after the brake dust settled and the engines cooled off, I’m hopeful that all was well in the world of Penske. I mean, both drivers in question ended up on the podium… how can that be a bad night?

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That March weekend in St. Pete’s is one I won’t soon forget. I was privy to experiences I hadn’t even dreamt about, I made connections with friends, colleagues and race family that I hope will last a lifetime and I got my feet wet in the world of “race coverage”. Dare I say… I think I’m addicted. I am very much looking forward to my next on-site/at-track adventure and I will be sure to keep you up to date throughout the season, even if I am unable to make it to a race in person. I hope to get to a place where missing a race weekend is not even a thought I have to entertain, but until then you will get my best… whether from the comfort of my home or in the organized chaos of the paddock.

I’m crossing my fingers for the latter.