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At Grand Prix, trucks hope to be more than puddle jumpers

Robby Gordon leads as he hits the ramp coming off of Turn 1. On a wet track, Gordon, a veteran of the Dakar Rally and other off-road races, won the season opener in the series he founded.

LUIS SANTANA | Times

Robby Gordon leads as he hits the ramp coming off of Turn 1. On a wet track, Gordon, a veteran of the Dakar Rally and other off-road races, won the season opener in the series he founded.

ST. PETERSBURG — Stadium Super Truck drivers maneuver through dirt and asphalt tracks at breakneck speeds before flying over man-made jumps.

On Saturday, they had to conquer a new element: rain.

The series made its debut at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg as drivers skidded through standing water after a downpour drenched the course during an abbreviated 10-lap race.

"I didn't know it was going to be that gnarly out there," said Jerett Brooks, who finished second. "The rain was insane."

The series, now in its second season, is the brainchild of Robby Gordon, the former IndyCar and NASCAR driver who won Saturday's race.

Gordon wanted to develop an off-road format for trucks similar to Baja-style desert racing. He is well-versed in the format as a seven-time SCORE International Off-Road champion and four-time winner of the Baja 500. For the past 10 years, he has raced in the Dakar Rally.

"For me the fan reaction has been great with the series," Gordon said. "I knew St. Petersburg was one of the spots I wanted to add this season. There's a tremendous atmosphere here."

While the paved streets in St. Petersburg do not offer the same rugged terrain as rally racing, Gordon tried to simulate some of the obstacles involved by installing man-made ramps. In dry conditions, trucks travel at more that 130 mph and reach heights of more than 20 feet off the ramps.

The typical speed and height reached with most jumps did not happen Saturday as drivers had to battle wet conditions for the first time in the series.

"The track conditions were the worst I've ever seen," Gordon said. "They asked if we still wanted to go and I said okay. We needed a trial lap just to get used to the jumping over the ramp in those conditions. Let me tell you, it was gnarly."

Baldwin back on top: Jack Baldwin, who swept the GTS class in last year's World Challenge races in St. Petersburg, started strong by leading both of Friday's practices and grabbing the pole position in qualifying with a top lap of 1:23.453.

Baldwin, 65, grew up in Tampa and graduated from Hillsborough High (Class of 1966). He started racing when he was 13 at the now-defunct Tampa dragway.

Three years ago, he started racing in the GTS class and finished third in points. Last year, he led in points until the final race of the season in Houston, where he finished fourth and dropped to second overall.

"I literally led in points last season until the final two minutes of the last race," Baldwin said. "You can say I'm motivated this year. We're prepared as a team and the car is in terrific shape."

The World Challenge canceled its first race Saturday because of standing water on the track and will race once today.

Local flavor: New Port Richey's RC Enerson finished second in Saturday's USF2000 race. Jake Eidson, driving for St. Petersburg-based Cape Motorsports, was fourth. Victor Franzoni won by 2.745 seconds. … In the Pro Mazda race, Cape Motorsports teammates Scott Hargrove and Neil Alberico finished third and sixth, respectively. Orlando's Spencer Pigot won by 2.6892 seconds over Kyle Kaiser.

At Grand Prix, trucks hope to be more than puddle jumpers 03/29/14 [Last modified: Saturday, March 29, 2014 9:48pm]
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