ST. PETERSBURG — Over the years, IndyCar stars Jacques Villeneuve, Alex Zanardi, Michael Andretti, Sebastien Bourdais and others have left North America's top open-wheel series to take on Formula One.
Nowadays, young drivers are mostly coming the other way across the Atlantic Ocean.
Three 24-year-old IndyCar rookies who will race in Sunday's Grand Prix of St. Petersburg have landed full-season IndyCar drives — Conor Daly with Dale Coyne, Max Chilton with Chip Ganassi and Alexander Rossi with Andretti Autosport — after having driven in F1 or its feeder series.
"It's an amazing chance in America," Chilton said Friday. The Englishman drove in F1 in 2013-14, then Indy Lights, IndyCar's top feeder series, in 2015. "You can build a career straight away."
IndyCar had nine different winners in 16 races last year compared to three in 19 races in F1, and even smaller teams have won here. Marussia, the team Chilton and Rossi have driven for, has one top-10 finish in four seasons.
"I think they're going to enjoy it," defending St. Petersburg champion and former F1 driver Juan Montoya said. "The problem is they haven't raced in a while. If you've been in Formula 1, especially the cars they've been in, they haven't really raced anybody, have they?"
"I think people are seeing that IndyCar is a great series," said retired four-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti, who is helping Chilton. "The budgets are just impossible to get for Formula One as well. … IndyCar right now is offering these guys good value for money."
Ah, yes, the $64,000 question — except that amount won't even buy you a handshake in racing. On a scale of 1 to 10, how hard it is to raise money in either series?
"It's a 10 on both sides, but it's a different number you're shooting for over there," said Daly, an Indiana native with six IndyCar starts as well as experience in GP2 and GP3 (F1's top feeder series) and Indy Lights. "Thankfully there was a team owner like Dale, who was out there also searching himself to try to put this deal together. And he made it work."
Then there's the atmosphere here, which Chilton called "much friendlier."
Daly, whose father Derek raced in both CART and F1, said, "Formula One tries to keep everyone away, and that's just a shame. Even the drivers in GP2 and GP3 are not even allowed in the paddock. Unless you have a special pass, which is really hard to get."
Rossi has a different perspective. The Californian, who started five times in F1 in 2015, will race here for Michael Andretti's team and test part-time for Manor's F1 team.
"The biggest deciding factor for me was the chance to drive for Andretti Autosport," Rossi said of joining IndyCar. "I'll balance (the two) carefully. I'm 100 percent committed and focused on IndyCar."
Weekend's first race: Jack Roush Jr. won the Pirelli World Challenge GTS event, the first career victory for the son of the NASCAR team owner. Roush won from the pole, beating Brett Sandberg by 2.6 seconds.
Nuts and bolts: The second IndyCar practice was interrupted when small chunks of asphalt came up after a couple of cars bottomed out exiting Turn 3 (First St. SE). The session restarted after about a 30-minute delay for repairs, as a crew used Set 45 concrete to fix the hole. Will Power, who hit a wall in the first practice, set the fastest lap in the second at one minute, 0.9431 seconds. … Jordan Lloyd earned the pole for today's USF2000 opener. … Security was heavier at entrances, including metal detectors, making lines to get in longer.