ST. PETERSBURG — The IndyCar Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is still three-plus weeks away, but Will Power was already the first one at the track.
Really, is anyone surprised?
Power attended Tuesday’s ceremonial track-build event on the downtown streets, in the shadow of Al Lang Stadium. The native Australian came into town from his residence in Charlotte, N.C., for the event, joining Oliver Askew, who drives for St. Petersburg-based Cape Motorsports in the Pro Mazda feeder series; Jason Bell, a Tampa resident who drives for Audi in the World Challenge sports car series; Mayor Rick Kriseman; and event co-promoters Kim Green and Kevin Savoree.
Being the fastest IndyCar driver to get to St. Petersburg (apart from resident Sebastien Bourdais, of course) is fitting for Power, who also always seems to be the fastest to get around St. Petersburg.
The Team Penske star has earned the pole position seven times on the 1.8-mile temporary street circuit, the most in the event’s history. This year’s race weekend is March 9-11.
"It just flows well for me," Power said in trying to explain his qualifying success in St. Petersburg. "It’s a street course; I’m pretty strong everywhere, I expect to go into every weekend with a chance to win or be on pole. This is no different. But this particular race … I always love it here."
He is indeed a contender everywhere — 30 career IndyCar wins, 44 poles and the 2014 series championship attest to that. But even by his high standards, Power is perhaps at his best in St. Petersburg. His six poles here are his most at any track, and he has won the race twice (2010, 2014).
He said the track became even better last year after the city resurfaced part of its streets.
"Sometimes the new stuff, until rubber goes down, is really slippery," Power said. "But brand new is always best. Then it slowly degrades after that. The track’s pretty smooth here now because they resurfaced most of it," he said, noting that a notoriously bumpy area coming out of Turn 3 (nearest the USF St. Petersburg campus) was smoother last year.
One thing that has not always been smooth is IndyCar’s recent history with street races. Events in Baltimore, Houston, Edmonton and Sao Paulo, Brazil, have come and gone from the series schedule in recent years. But St. Petersburg has become a mainstay as the season opener, becoming a popular stop for the drivers.
"I don’t know what the formula is, but it seems the cities that get behind the race always succeed," said Power, who turns 37 on March 1. "This is a great advertisement (for the city) for a whole weekend, when you think of a race. That’s two-hour coverage that goes out all around the world. You can’t really pay for that sort of advertising."