St. Petersburg Preview

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In the interest of full disclosure, I wrote today’s post last weekend. When I have time, I sometimes write things ahead of time. If something changes in the IndyCar world after I write it, I go back and edit the parts I need to. After everything that has happened over the past forty-eight hours, I should probably just re-write the entire post. But as soon as I did that, things would change again. As I edit this on Thursday night, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is still on. It will be run in front of no fans and only essential personnel, but it is currently scheduled to take place on Sunday. But as we’ve seen this week – a lot can happen between now and then.

I write about IndyCar and give my opinion on various things related to the NTT IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500. I try to refrain from expressing my opinion on politics or world events. No one likes to hear celebrities lecture us at the Oscars, or athletes discussing world events. A couple of people have asked me to write something about my opinion regarding COVID-19. I’m not taking the bait. If you know me, you’ve probably got a good idea where I stand – so I’ll just stick to the season-opening race, which is still scheduled to run…for now. But Long Beach has already been a casualty to the schedule, due to local laws put in place forbidding large gatherings through the end of April. It may or not be reschedule for later this season. COTA appeared in jeopardy early in the week, but it is still up in the air for now. The next race after St. Petersburg is Barber. I’m not even going to speculate on its status, but I’ve really heard nothing about it. A lot can happen in three weeks.

Although the St. Petersburg race is still scheduled to run on Sunday, there will be no practice sessions today. The revised schedule is as follows: The first practice now starts on Saturday morning at 9:45 am EDT. Practice Two will begin at 1:30 pm EDT with Qualifying getting underway at 4:45 Saturday afternoon. All practices and qualifying can be seen live on NBC Sports Gold. Qualifying can be seen delayed on NBCSN Saturday night at 10:00 pm EDT. Live Race coverage begins Sunday at 2:30 pm on NBCSN. With no live sports on television this weekend (other than the NASCAR race from Atlanta), maybe sports fans clamoring for anything to watch will tune in and become intrigued. That’s about the only potential good that can come from such a strange and bizarre weekend.

This time last year, Susan and I were in Florida for the opening practice of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. This year I have a full day planned at work today, and I’ll be lucky to even know the results of either practice session before I get home tonight. Susan and I had a blast there last year, and we will be back. But time and budget constraints prevent us from going to as many races as we’d like – but we will return to St. Petersburg in the near future. If you can ever work it into your schedule, I’d highly recommend it.

Once you’ve physically visited a track, it is so much easier to visualize where the cars are while on-track. Before visiting the track last year, most of the fourteen turns of the 1.8-mile temporary street circuit that also utilizes a runway at Albert Whitted Airport all look the same on television. Now that we’ve been there and pretty much walked the track at various points during the race weekend – I can look at any turn and know where it is. That’s one of the many reasons I love attending races in person.

It seems that most races at St. Petersburg feature perfect weather. There have been a couple of races since the NTT IndyCar Series first ran there in 2005, that were cloudy. The 2008 and 2010 races were affected by rain, but usually – this race is held under sunny blue skies, like it was last year when we were there.

Since 2011, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg has been the season-opener for the NTT IndyCar Series. I can’t think of a better place to open the season. The racing is decent enough and it looks very inviting on television. While most of the country is still dealing with cold winter temperatures, the yachts docked alongside Bay Shore Drive with sun-drenched occupants on-board provide an inviting sight for most of us in mid-March.

That same stretch of track, between Turns Nine and Ten, also provides one of the few passing zones on the circuit. Of course the best is the long Runway 24, that makes up the main straightaway. Cars fan out to five-wide on the wide runway before funneling into Turn One.

Many memorable passes and attempted passes have taken place in Turn One at St. Petersburg over the years – most notably, when Alexander Rossi made a last-ditch effort to pass race-leader Robert Wickens in the closing stages of the 2018 race. Wickens, who had led most of the day in his very first IndyCar race, ended up in the outside wall as Rossi pushed his way through. Sébastien Bourdais, who was running in third at the time, took advantage of the situation and found himself in the lead – on his way to his second St. Petersburg victory in as many years.

At the beginning of practice last year, Team Penske appeared to be absolutely lost. Josef Newgarden was the best Penske car, which was only good for seventh-fastest. By Session Two, things seemed to be no better for the team that had one eight of the previous fourteen races at St. Petersburg. But by the Saturday morning practice, the team seemed to find something. Josef Newgarden was second-quick in the final practice and all three Penske cars were in the Top-Seven. In the Firestone Fast-Six Qualifying, Team Penske swept the front-row – with Will Power on the pole and Newgarden alongside on the outside of the front-row. For the race, Newgarden took the checkered-flag. Looking back, it was the start of his run to his second IndyCar championship in three seasons.

That win gave Team Penske their ninth win at St. Petersburg since 2005. The other races have been won by Dale Coyne Racing (twice), Andretti Autosport (twice), Newman/Haas (once) and surprisingly only once by Chip Ganassi Racing (Dario Franchitti in 2011). Even more surprisingly is that Scott Dixon has never won at St. Petersburg. Last year’s second-place finish was the best result the five-time champion has ever had at St. Petersburg – matching his 2006 result there.

Simon Pagenaud is the only current Team Penske driver to never win at St. Petersburg. Pagenaud has a history of getting his season off to a slow start, although the reigning Indianapolis 500 champion did have two consecutive second-place finishes at St. Petersburg in 2016 and 2017. Pagenaud won the championship in 2016, so it would be important for hi to get off to a good start this season, in order to avoid the rumors of his pending demise like we were hearing last spring.

My pick to win the championship, Alexander Rossi, has had so-so results at St. Petersburg. He finished fifth last season, but was never considered a contender for the race win. He needs to get off to a better start if he wants to clinch the championship in September.

Last year, rookie Felix Rosenqvist qualified third and finished fourth while leading twenty-nine laps and looking very impressive in his first IndyCar race. He ended up winning IndyCar Rookie of the Year. The other hot rookie of last year also had a decent day. Colton Herta qualified eleventh and finished eighth. Did I mention that Herta’s transporter carrying his car caught fire Wednesday morning? After traveling a thousand miles from Indianapolis, the transporter caught fire about fifteen minutes from the track. Herta’s race car suffered cosmetic damage, but the pit equipment was not so lucky. Some of it was heavily damaged. His Andretti Autosport team re-wrapped the car and it is ready to go. As I said earlier…these past forty-eight hours have been crazy.

While winning at St. Petersburg is a great way to jumps-start a driver’s season, it doesn’t guarantee a championship. In the last decade, the winner at St. Petersburg went on to win the IndyCar championship only three times – Dario Franchitti in 2011, Will Power in 2014 and Josef Newgarden last season.

So who will win Sunday and have a leg up on the other drivers, for at least three weeks until the series heads to Barber? It’s not much of a limb that I’m going out on, to say it will be a Team Penske driver. But you might be surprised which one I think will win. I think Will Power wants to prove that just because he turned thirty-nine a couple of weeks ago – he still has plenty left in the tank. He doesn’t want to follow the path of Juan Montoya and Helio Castroneves and be put out to pasture at Team Penske’s sports car team. The best way to avoid that is to win. He will do that on Sunday and I’ll start the season by correctly picking the race winner – a very rare feat for me. Of course, the race must first be run in order to be won. Stay tuned.

George Phillips

12 Responses to “St. Petersburg Preview”

  1. Here are notes from the recent University of California Biohub panel on what to expect in the coming weeks and months. This is not trivial. These are experts in the field, please heed their words and take care of yourselves folks.

    https://www.linkedin.com/content-guest/article/notes-from-ucsf-expert-panel-march-10-dr-jordan-shlain-m-d-/

  2. with cancellations or delays in many of the stick and ball sports and cancellation of some of the events in motorsports I am concerned about the fate of the 500 . I realize it’s 80 days or so away however I would like to know what plans IndyCar and IMS have in place or are considering . I can not imagine the event being cancelled however I also can not imagine it being run without spectators.

    There is some indication the virus is less viriant in warm weather however it’s not always that warm in Indiana in May. Even though being over 60 puts me at higher risk I would still attend regardless.

    If cancelled it would a terrible hit economically for Indianapolis from the Penske Corp ,vendors , teams ,sponsors ,down to the local neighbors who sell parking spaces in their yards.

    George , I think this subject warrenty a column from you

  3. billytheskink Says:

    I’m grateful for the distraction that the race will be, if it does in fact go forward. I will understand if it does not.

    World of Outlaws is planning on still running this weekend, though rain may call those races. I had already cancelled my plans to go anyways, with much disappointment.

  4. The 500…. The big elephant in the room nobody wants to talk about concerning this….

  5. Bruce Waine Says:

    12:15 pm Friday March 13th

    For Immediate Release

    Official Statement from INDYCAR
    After careful consideration, including regular communication with our event promoters, health officials, and the city administrations in our respective race markets regarding COVID-19, we have made the decision to cancel all NTT INDYCAR Series events through April.

    This begins with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg which was to begin today and run through Sunday, March 15 and continues through the AutoNation INDYCAR Challenge at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas which was to take place April 24-26.

    Although we are disappointed to delay the start to this INDYCAR season and will miss our incredible fans who support us each year in St. Petersburg, Birmingham, Long Beach, and Austin, the safety of our fans, participants, staff, partners, and media will always remain our top priority.

    We will continue to coordinate with public health experts and government officials as we determine the appropriate plans for resuming our schedule.”

    This email was sent by: INDYCAR
    4551 West 16th Street, Indianapolis, IN 46222

    Manage Subscriptions | Update Profile | One-Click Unsubscribe

    Trademarks are property of Brickyard Trademarks, Inc.

    • Ron Ford Says:

      Thanks for the update Bruce. In addition, Racer.com has all the latest news, although nothing about the 500.

  6. Well shit

  7. Ron Ford Says:

    A wasted post.

  8. My opinions and comments are just as valid as anyone else on this blog . If George wants to block me from commenting on his blog he is the only one with the right to do so and I will respect his action

    • In almost eleven years of doing this, I’ve blocked one person. That was a nut that hijacked my site in 2010 to promote her own personal agenda to ban auto racing in general; and I blocked her only after several warnings. I don’t ban or censor anyone, unless things get way out of hand like it did with her. I have a fairly descriptive potty mouth, but I always refrain from using profanity in my posts. I don’t impose that same rule on the comments here, so long as people don’t get downright pornographic. Your reaction to the cancellation was a lot cleaner than mine was verbally. I had no problem with it. – GP

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