Wide Open on the Streets

Anne Proffit
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LAGUNA WOODS, March 29, 2005 - The Indy Racing League's IndyCar and Menards Infiniti Pro Series' enter a new realm of racing this weekend with the running of the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

After 85,724 consecutive left turns in its nine-year history - and into this tenth anniversary season - the League's denizens will make their first right turns on Friday morning on the 1.8-mile, 14-corner St. Pete street circuit. It should be an interesting session for the IndyCar and Pro series, shouldn't it?

Of course many League drivers are recognized road racing experts who have been champing at the bit to get back to what they consider the natural order of things. While road racing is a venerable partition of the motor racing world, it's not the type of sport that inspires casual fans to come watch.

The rationale behind that statement has plenty to do with the manner in which road and street races normally transpire: they are, for the most part parades. One car following another looking for a way past is the standard operating procedure. It remains to be seen if the areas that look right for overtaking opportunities on the St. Petersburg circuit actually prove their mettle when competition begins.

Can Indy Racing League fans stomach the idea of watching passes on a big screen instead of right in front of their faces? That, of course is the beauty of oval open wheel contests - you can see everything if you plan your seating choices right.

The promotional muscle of Andretti Green Promotions, Barry Green and the City of St. Petersburg have been drumming up interest in this race since it was announced and, of course sponsor Honda Motor Co. have performed their usual advertising efforts to bring out the crowds.

It remains to see if it'll all work, but it surely should be interesting.

Some teams and drivers took a side trip to Sebring for a final tune-up with both Indy and Pro series teams on hand for rust inhibition earlier this week. Whether those plans work in practice as well as theory is a question only practice, qualifying and racing can answer.

Leading up to this race, many of the carpetbaggers from the former CART series are championing the addition of more, more, more road races for the Indy Racing League. I don't think I'll agree with them at this point in time because I'm not sure the fans want it to be this way.

I really believe IRL fans want to see the action in front of them, just like their peers who line up by the millions to watch NASCAR Nextel Cup races. Fans want to see the action and they can't do that when cars are out of sight for much of a race.

It's up to guys like Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti, Buddy Rice, Patrick Carpentier, Dan Wheldon (who lives in this area), Helio Castroneves, Danica Patrick and Alex Barron, to name only a few who must show us what they're capable of doing on this kind of track. And they've got to make it fun for all of us watching from the stands and at home.

Sam Hornish Jr., one of the League's icons and the sole two-time IRL champion cut his teeth in karts and in Toyota Atlantic prior to succeeding in the former all-oval Indy Racing League. Hornish has shown he understands the ovals nearly to perfection; even Sam agrees he's got some rust to cut.

Ed Carpenter's in the same boat as Hornish, as he emerged for his ride with Vision Racing following many years of competition in midgets, sprints and Silver Crown open-wheelers. His Pro series teammate Jay Drake is another guy grabbing the gunnels of a "never done road-racing" canoe for dear life.

All of these drivers who lack right-turn experience made their way this winter to racing schools for some instruction, a good thing from safety aspects.

I'm looking forward to my trip to the west coast of Florida to watch this weekend's proceedings. I think the IRL should have a wide open 22-car field for this event; most of the drivers I've spoken to are truly looking forward to the new qualifying regimen - as well as racing on roads and streets once again.

Brian Barnhart, president and CEO of the Indy Racing League devised a scheme that should excite participants and fans alike: each session from Friday through race day Sunday is intended to build to crescendo.

For the first time, there will be a full field practice Friday morning when, for two hours the teams can figure out the set-ups they need for Sunday's race. This morning session also serves to separate the wheat from the chaff so that slower cars may have a half-hour to practice in the afternoon and then faster cars test together.

"We'll combine the best laps for all 22 to come up with the qualifying order and, one hour before single car qualifying, the fastest driver can determine whether he or she wishes to go first or last" in single-car timed laps. Drivers will have only one timed lap to set a quick speed and positions 7-22 get confirmed following "single-car qualifying of one warm-up, one timed and one cool-down lap," Barnhart explained.

At that point the fun really begins. The top half-dozen get to vie for Marlboro pole position with ten minutes of Euro-style lapping, the fastest of the six getting a clean track to set a banzai lap. It's gonna be awesome to watch six totally pumped up drivers on the edge, each trying to keep it off the walls and be the fastest animal in this jungle.

Upping the ante, Firestone is giving the slick six an extra set of tires for their ten minutes of mayhem - and with the way street racing goes, this could be "winner takes all". Hard to believe that the victors in this year's first two Indy Racing League contests came from mid-field, but it's true. Will it happen again? Don't hold your breath.

But there's more: thunderstorms have been forecast for Friday in St. Petersburg, Florida and road racers do it in the rain. That is the time when teams and drivers must meld together to get the holy grail of speed. Separate wheat from chaff indeed.

The Indy Racing League is taking it to the streets this weekend. This is a monumental occasion and one that should not be missed. If you're within a thousand miles, that is close enough to haul.

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