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Roger Penske likes St. Petersburg's place as IndyCar opener

ST. PETERSBURG — As IndyCar officials work on next year's schedule, team owner Roger Penske said he favors keeping the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg as the series' opener.

"Coming to Florida this time of year, it's a good place to be," the Team Penske owner said. "The whole city has embraced what's going on. To me, that's good."

Penske, whose drivers are Helio Castroneves, Will Power and Ryan Briscoe, said he likes where the series is because of a 26-car field, new engine competition and new cars. But he said he thinks IndyCar can grow by adding more races to North America's major markets while keeping certain races in regular spots on the schedule.

"People want to go to St. Pete in March and see an IndyCar race, like you go to Sebring, like you go to Le Mans," Penske said.

IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard praised the city but said he doesn't want to commit to St. Petersburg as the long-term season opener.

"I love St. Pete," Bernard said. "I think that wherever St. Pete is, it'll be successful. I don't want to box myself in and say that it should be the first event."

Bernard said 90 percent of his attention has been focused on adding new North American markets next year. IndyCar has had serious talks with Houston, but an announcement isn't imminent, Bernard said. Phoenix, which held IndyCar races from 1996-2005, is another possibility.

Starting last: Sebastien Bourdais ran off the track in Turn 8 during the first qualifying segment and did minor damage to his No. 7 Lotus Dragon Racing machine.

The native Frenchman, who has moved back to St. Petersburg, where he lived when he won four consecutive Champ Car titles from 2004-07, starts today's race last among 26 entries.

"(Saturday) morning we felt very strong, very happy with the car, and we put reds (alternate tires) on and it just disappeared," Bourdais said.

It has been a tough week for Bourdais, who waited until this week to get a Lotus engine in his car.

"It's been a huge effort for the last month and a half," Bourdais said. "We can only be pretty happy to be there."

The other Lotus machines struggled, too. The highest Lotus-powered qualifier was the No. 98 of Alex Tagliani, who starts 17th and was 1.3 seconds behind Power's pole time. Penske said he hopes the engine issues are resolved "here pretty quick," at least before the Indianapolis 500.

"We've always said that Lotus is the little engine that's trying," Bernard said. "They're trying to compete with two gorillas in this sport."

Qualifying wrecks: Katherine Legge's No. 6 Dallara-Lotus ended its qualifying run when she ran into the Turn 8 tires and damaged the left half of her front wing. She starts 25th.

Castroneves said communication problems with his team made him unable to hear where he stood during his second qualifying session. The 2006 and 2007 Grand Prix winner said he pushed his No. 3 Chevy too hard and hit the wall in Turn 9. His team quickly replaced the rear suspension, helping Castroneves qualify fifth.

Etc.: Rookie Josef Newgarden was eighth-quickest during Saturday's practice but couldn't keep up in qualifying. He starts 19th. … IndyCar newcomer and former Formula One star Rubens Barrichello finished outside the top 12 and didn't advance to the second round of qualifying. His No. 8 KV Racing Technology Dallara-Chevrolet starts 14th. … Graham Rahal, the 2008 Grand Prix winner, on qualifying 11th as part of Chip Ganassi's teams: "We're pretty frustrated, or at least I am."

Times staff writer Jim Tomlin contributed to this report. Matt Baker can be reached at mbaker@tampabay.com.

Roger Penske likes St. Petersburg's place as IndyCar opener 03/24/12 [Last modified: Saturday, March 24, 2012 9:20pm]
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