The Indy Racing League that commences its 2009 season on downtown St. Petersburg streets on April 5 will be a greatly evolved series from the one that debuted at Walt Disney World Speedway outside Orlando in 1996.
Rival Champ Car ceased operations this spring. Several of its teams and its race dates have been melded with the IRL. The league that once drove a wedge through North American open-wheel racing now is North American open-wheel racing.
The league has embraced street and road courses with eight non-ovals on the new 18-race schedule — up from two this year — with Surfers Paradise, Australia a likely ninth to be added.
"We think it is a good move toward balance, as we've also said that because Champ Car brought, as we've said, a lot of opportunities and a few challenges," said IRL commercial division president Terry Angstadt. "And as exclusively road racing, we think that working towards that 50-50 balance is good. ... There's real interest in a couple more historic Champ Car venues for the future."
Toronto, promoted by Andretti Green Promotions, which has overseen the Grand Prix's emergence as one of the season's most-anticipated events, replaces Nashville (an oval race) and discussions have been held to ply former Champ Car street courses in Cleveland and Houston.
Angstadt called the Northeast and Northwest — Portland and Vancouver once held Champ Car races — the series' underserved markets, but did not award a race to New Hampshire Motor Speedway, eliciting a jilted-loveresque response from Speedway Motorsports, that called the perceived snub "a slap in the face to Bruton Smith, our Chairman, and to our company who have both been very supportive of the Indy Racing League since its inception."
With the IRL able to be selective with so many former Champ Car markets dormant, future additions could lead to date-shuffling and the possibility St. Petersburg will not retain the opener. That doesn't keep general manager Tim Ramsberger from visualizing an even larger shindig than AGP used to draw more than 125,000 over three days, according to city officials.
"We need to make this a big deal," he said.
St. Petersburg's move to the season-opener was facilitated in part because Homestead-Miami Speedway — which had hosted the opener since 2002 — had failed to generated better than mediocre crowds in a congested sports month. PGA and WTA events were held in the Miami area within 10 days of the race in late March.
But St. Petersburg's increasing profile as a box office success and a postcard backdrop for television — yachts and water instead of empty bleachers and concrete — make it a quantum improvement over Homestead, especially in terms of imprinting a positive image. And in there is a symbolism in St. Petersburg commencing the schedule after it made history as the series' first non-oval race in 2005. Here the series began proving its street- and road-course racing capabilities, which slowly took away Champ Car's last bits of viability and enable reunification.
"It's a great feeling to know that we had a small part in that. And, again, a small part," said AGP managing director Kevin Savoree. "It was really Tony George and his team and so on that said, look, we want to try something else. And I think maybe in some small way that's part of how everything continued to evolve. So if we were part of that evolution, we're thrilled to have been there."