The crooked road of the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, IndyCar's first and longest-running street race, has been winding for a decade now. To mark the 10th edition, which takes place Sunday, we take a look at 10 things about the race.
— Jim Tomlin [email protected]
In 2005, IndyCar chose the city's downtown streets for its first non-oval race, on the course where Champ Car ran an event in 2003. Rookie Ryan Briscoe led late in '05 when he and Tony Kanaan touched. Kanaan's teammate at Andretti Green, St. Petersburg resident Dan Wheldon, scooted by both and went on to win. That led a 1-2-3-4 team finish, not done before or since, with Kanaan second, Dario Franchitti third and pole-sitter Bryan Herta fourth. "The 2005 race was so special to us," Kanaan said. "That was one of the things I'll never forget. They way the people welcomed us, and the result, was unbelievable."
Helio Castroneves led the final five laps in 2006 to win after Scott Dixon, who had led, stopped for a splash of fuel. Tony Kanaan finished third. In 2007 those same three drivers contended for the win. In fact, they all finished on the podium again, and in the same order.
This is the fifth year IndyCar has opened its season in St. Pete, which means plenty of drivers have made their series debuts downtown, including Charlie Kimball (2011), Josef Newgarden (2012) and Rubens Barrichello (2012). But one debut stands out. In 2008, Graham Rahal moved to IndyCar from Champ Car. A crash in testing, as the team scrambled to get new equipment, sidelined him for the opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But he made up for it in a hurry in St. Petersburg, pulling off the victory in a rain-shortened event. It's his only series win, and he still holds the record for the youngest winner in major open-wheel history at 19 years, 3 months, 2 days.
Many drivers had their introduction to St. Pete in Indy Lights, IndyCar's primary feeder series. Marco Andretti won in 2005, and Raphael Matos holds the record with three Indy Lights wins in St. Pete. Both went on to race full time in IndyCar, as did 2013 Grand Prix winner James Hinchcliffe and future rookies of the year Tristan Vautier (a St. Pete resident) and Hideki Mutoh among others.
Helio Castroneves won in St. Petersburg for the third time in 2012 — he's still the only multiple winner here — and paid tribute to the late Dan Wheldon by getting out of his car on the cool-down lap and touching the street sign suspended on the fence in Turn 10, now named Dan Wheldon Way.
Though a French native, Sebastien Bourdais has lived in St. Pete for both of his stints in North American open-wheel racing, so this is his home base. Fort Lauderdale's Ryan Hunter-Reay also calls this his home race. "Obviously it's pretty sentimental," Bourdais said. "Being the home track it'd be really cool if we could have some good success."
Sub to star
In spring 2009, Helio Castroneves faced a tax evasion trial in Miami. He and his sister/manager were eventually acquitted, but the trial meant he would miss the race here. His Penske Racing seat, one of the best in the business, was open. Will Power leaped at the chance, starting and finishing sixth. That led to more races that season in a third car, after Castroneves returned to drive the No. 3. Power went on to win that July in Edmonton and hasn't looked back, earning 19 victories for Penske and the pole position in St. Pete the past four years.
Only two drivers have lined up for all nine editions of the IndyCar Grand Prix of St. Petersburg: Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon. Both have contended several times and have otherwise accomplished just about all there is to do in the series, but neither has won here. Kanaan has seven top-five finishes and eight top-10s, the most of any driver.
This is one of five street courses on IndyCar's schedule, but this 1.8-mile circuit has unique tendencies. "This race always has a curveball in it somewhere. I don't know why," said two-time podium finisher Hunter-Reay, who made his Champ Car debut here in 2003. "It's tough to get it right here. But it's a really fun track." Sebastien Bourdais said: "It's not really a proper street course setup per se, it's more of a street course/road course hybrid. It's not very bumpy. It's more of a flowy track."
Television coverage features great views of downtown, palm trees, boats bobbing in the waters along Bayshore Drive and sunny skies (except for 2008). Another element popped on TV starting in 2011: the new spot for the Salvador Dalí Museum, right off of the kink between Turns 9 and 10. Viewers can see the building's intricate glass facade, but this year, out-of-town visitors can't see the works inside unless they arrive earlier or stay later: Last month the museum, citing flat attendance during race weekend, announced it will be closed Friday through Sunday.