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Grand Prix of St. Petersburg played crucial role in uniting open-wheel racing

Graham Rahal's race car rolled to a stop last April on the runway that served as pit road at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. The Lindbergh-in-Paris imagery worked on many levels as a mob of well-wishers, friends, crewmen and drivers from rival race teams rushed the scratched black machine.

In winning the Indy Racing League's fourth edition of the Grand Prix, Rahal, at 19, became the youngest winner of a major North American open-wheel race, bolstering the racing legacy of one of open-wheel racing's most lauded families.

"It was kind of a storybook ending," he said.

But in winning the second race since the IRL consumed the viable teams, drivers and races of the Champ Car series (its rival that went bankrupt), Rahal and his Newman/Haas/Lanigan team had proved to their fellow Champ Car expatriates that this sea-changing circumstance could be overcome.

And there was no more fitting place for it than here.

It was on the downtown streets of St. Petersburg that this moment became possible. It was here, in 2005, that the IRL proved it could evolve from an ovals-only circuit into a more nimble, versatile series that could manifest downtown racing festivals and draw crowds on green hills of permanent road courses.

In doing so, the IRL laid in St. Petersburg the first stone in the hard path to reunification. And that could eventually change motorsports as a whole.

"It's hard to diminish the impact it had on racing general," IRL president of competition Brian Barnhart said. "I think it was clearly one of the best business decisions we ever made as a series, to go there and to go non-oval racing. I think it had significant impact on unification."

But first there had to be a first race here. Andretti Green Promotions, a wing of the Andretti Green Racing team, acquired the rights to stage the Grand Prix and, with former Indiana resident Rick Baker amenable to the event as mayor, secured an initial three-year deal that has since been renewed through 2013. Though AGP does not release attendance figures, crowds have appeared larger and more enthusiastic with each installment as the event found date equity on the first Sunday in April and created a festival feel with concerts and other attractions.

Street racing, because of the confines of the course, can often be mundane, but drivers have expressed pleasure with the Grand Prix not only as a destination but as an event. Many consider it subordinate only to the Indianapolis 500.

Proving it could stage a successful street race helped IndyCar hack into Champ Car's niche, but it also created a common ground, driver Dario Franchitti said.

"That first race was important," said Franchitti, who finished third as his then-AGR teammates set a series record by claiming the top four positions in 2005. "Had it been a complete shambles, it would have been pretty bad for the IndyCar series. The fact it went off so well, in terms of the on-track product and the location and the fans and the crowd — everything went well. That set a good precedent, I think, and showed that was the direction the IndyCar series wanted to go, and it definitely helped the two series get closer together.

"Had the IndyCar series still been an oval-only series, I don't think we would have seen unification."

Five years ago this hardly seemed possible. The now-defunct Champ Car series raced here once in 2003, but as the IRL's onetime rival became increasingly beset by financial problems, St. Petersburg was lost from the schedule and promoter Dover Motorsports eventually relinquished not only its rights to the market but all of the infrastructure needed to stage a street race.

The Grand Prix became an asset acquired by then-team owners Kevin Kalkhoven, Gerald Forsythe and Paul Gentilozzi when they were awarded the remnants of the series in bankruptcy proceedings in 2004.

Champ Car officials tried unsuccessfully to return for 2004 and that dormancy allowed the IRL, which was already formulating a plan that led to a 2005 expansion onto road courses in Sonoma, Calif., and Watkins Glen, N.Y., to broach a dialogue with city officials. Champ Car also ceded the barriers and fencing to the city, meaning the infrastructure to race was already here.

IRL founder Tony George announced a deal against the backdrop of what would become the 1.8-mile course on Sept. 3, 2004, making St. Petersburg the site of the first non-oval event since the IRL began racing in 1996. St. Petersburg was to be the crucible, the first non-oval.

"It helped us down the path to where we are today," Barnhart said of the Grand Prix. "We have the most diverse racing schedule in all of motorsports."

This season, seven of the IRL's 17 races will be contested on street or road courses, four of which are former Champ Car venues. Four drivers for teams gingerly dubbed "transitional" (i.e. Champ Car members in 2007) won last year. And each victory offered a bit more assurance that reunification, which all parties agreed was necessary for open-wheel racing's survival, might work out after all.

The first of those indicators came here. Because the reunification process was officially completed only about five weeks before the opener, Champ Car teams had to use hand-me-down equipment from existing teams and rapidly acclimate to new processes and venues. Rahal's car arrived at his team's race shop unassembled in a box weeks before testing.

Because he had just one car, his wreck in practice before the opener at Homestead forced his team to skip the race and begin work on St. Petersburg. It worked out for everyone.

"I don't think any of us were rooting for him, but the fact that it happened can only be considered a good thing," Barnhart said. "It gave a whole bunch of credibility and hope to the whole thing coming together and working."

On an appropriate stage.

Grand Prix of St. Petersburg played crucial role in uniting open-wheel racing 03/28/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 1, 2009 9:22pm]
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