ST PETERSBURG, FL, April 5, 2005 – There’s a glow permeating this Florida city following last weekend’s inaugural Honda Grand Prix of St Petersburg, the Indy Racing League’s first street/road course contest in its nine-year-plus history.
The event went off without a snafu, thanks to good planning by Barry Green, Kirk Russell and the hordes of Andretti Green Promotions workers assembled for the purpose. Promotion was excellent – an anomaly for the League – and the race drew well more than the 50-70,000 fans hoped for by Green and Co.
From the moment I arrived, though, it appeared everyone wanted to talk about the same old subject: reunification of major American-based open wheel racing.
It might sound like another broken record to some but now that the IRL has invaded the province regularly occupied by the Champ Car World Series and held its first extremely successful street race, it’s simply not possible to think of the League as a one-trick pony anymore.
Among the spectators on hand to watch the League’s first street race was a man who will race on the other side of the country this weekend in Champ Car’s belated season opener, the 31st annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
St Petersburg resident Sebastien Bourdais, the reigning Champ Car titleholder spent the weekend watching other people racing rather than competing on the familiar track.
Bourdais realizes, despite his short time driving in the USA that there might have been an even better show in his adopted hometown had there been 30 or more brightly colored projectiles screaming by the yachts moored adjacent to the 1.8-mile circuit where he began his Champ Car career (on pole position, of course).
Sebs is not the only one to realize this factoid; just about everyone in the IRL paddock still believes that a single united US-based open wheel series beats two of a kind. The competition would be superior, the ability to bring in sponsorship money would be easier, and the fans might even pay attention once again.
It would be tough not to pay attention to what occurred this weekend. Team co-owner and co-promoter Michael Andretti called it a “fantasy weekend”, one in which his quartet of Andretti Green Racing Dallara/Honda/Firestone entries crossed the finish line in first through fourth places.
One of his drivers, Bryan Herta took the Marlboro Pole Award for the second straight race weekend. Herta finished fourth in the 100-lap street fight. Another was fastest in single car qualifying, but Dario Franchitti failed to convert that position once the IRL’s novel Firestone Fast Six 10-minute winner-take-all shootout was complete. Dario held third once the race was done.
Tony Kanaan, the IndyCar Series’ reigning champion was in the middle of most of the action all afternoon and helped cause sufficient controversy as he made his way to second on the podium. Oh, and local resident Dan Wheldon, whose ubiquitous face graced signs all over town was the winner of the race.
Does it get better than that? Well, yes. Andretti’s son Marco made his Menards Infiniti Pro Series debut by winning pole, losing it on a technicality, regaining the point on Saturday and then winning the Sunday morning race.
Marco’s best pal Will Riehl died in a traffic accident on Saturday afternoon; this 18-year-old heir to his grandfather’s and father’s legacies was distressed and stressed out by all of the background complexities but undeterred from the task at hand, even when Andretti committed an unforced error and fell to second.
The kid just put his head down and made an inside pass on Kiwi Wade Cunningham for the lead that had his competitor dazed and confused afterwards.
Mario Andretti, joined by wife Dee Ann, daughter Barbara and granddaughter Marisa made his first call on an Indy Racing League event other than the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race.
Mario looked like he was having fun, especially after Marco’s victory. He might attend another race despite his ongoing quarrel with League owner Tony George and support for Champ Car.
Marco Andretti will likely race in the Pro series’ support event the weekend of the United States Grand Prix at Indy. That Michael’s son is destined for greatness can’t be understated and his spoken desire is to race for his father in the near future.
Wouldn’t you like to see Marco Andretti battling the IndyCar Series stars together with Sebastien Bourdais, Paul Tracy (likely gone to NASCAR next year), A.J. Allmendinger and the balance of the current Champ Car field?
Wouldn’t you like to see American open wheel racing united as a front?
This coming weekend’s Long Beach race may easily be the final thrust for Champ Car on this beachside street circuit. The contract is up Sunday afternoon and Indy Racing League operatives acknowledge they want to be there.
The League is likely headed north of the border at least once in 2006 now that Canadian star Patrick Carpentier has settled into the IRL.
North American street races have been Champ Car’s forte and now the Indy Racing League has even usurped that standard with this exciting Honda Grand Prix of St Petersburg.
It wasn’t always pretty, but open wheel street races normally have NASCAR-style banging and pranging with walls in such close proximity and finishing positions so important.
There’s a hue and cry for unification. The noise is getting louder and louder and it’s coming from within both series’ purvey. Now would be a good time to act for the benefit of the business and sport of motor racing.