IndyCar driver Ryan Briscoe recently took a spin around the downtown streets and reminisced about some Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg races past. Trust us. It wasn't a complete joy ride. Not with a representative from a rival team reveling in a sweep of the top four spots in the 2005 race — an historic outcome. "I'm in the backseat and I said, 'Yeah. You're welcome,' " Briscoe deadpanned. Then a rookie, Briscoe owned the lead late in the '05 race when he and Tony Kanaan bumped on Turn 10, a vexing point on the scenic course. That sent Briscoe careening into the tires, a mishap that allowed St. Petersburg resident Dan Wheldon to surge to the front. Wheldon held off then-Andretti Green teammates Kanaan, Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta for the win. Meanwhile, Briscoe finished 14th,
a disappointment considering what could have been that day.
"But no," Briscoe said with a broadening grin, "it's been good for me. A lot of good memories here."
Especially from a year ago when he gained a measure of redemption by winning the Indy Racing League event, a result that kick-started his most successful season and stamped him as one to watch — and catch. Not just in today's renewal of the race as part of the powerful Penske Racing team along with Helio Castroneves and Will Power, but throughout the season.
"Going into last year, he had potential," said Tim Cindric, president of Penske Racing. "This year, he has expectations."
Briscoe, 28, is the kind of guy you want at your backyard cookout. He's gregarious, funny and laid back. The latter character trait is also evident when he gets behind the wheel.
"It takes a lot to rattle him," said his wife, Nicole.
Not that racing hasn't tried to shake him up.
There was the accident in St. Petersburg in 2005, which cost him what would have been his first IndyCar win. Far worse was a harrowing, fiery crash in September of that year at Chicagoland — forever dubbed, Briscoe Inferno — that he was fortunate to survive. He broke his collarbones and bruised a lung and returned to Italy — where he lived, trained and raced for the previous eight years — to recuperate.
Four months after the accident, he was back in a car.
Just not for Chip Ganassi Racing.
During the next two years, he started just five IndyCar races but rejuvenated his career while finishing second in the American Le Mans Series for Penske in 2007. That earned him a shot on Penske's IndyCar team and he won twice, setting the stage for a breakout year.
"When you think back to that horrific accident he had at Chicago a few years back," said former driver and ABC/ESPN IndyCar analyst Scott Goodyear, "it's remarkable he had the belief in himself and the gumption to be able to get back in the cockpit of a single-seater and compete at speeds of over 200 mph. I can tell you from driving cars and going through injuries, including two broken backs, no matter if you're young or old, you lay there in the hospital and the questions come to mind all the time: 'Will I be able to drive to the limit and over the limit?' "
In addition to his win here to start 2009, he won at Kentucky and, fittingly enough, at Chicagoland. He also had eight runnerup finishes and 13 in the top five overall, barely missing out on the championship. After sitting atop the standings entering the penultimate race, he finished third behind Ganassi teammates, Franchitti and Scott Dixon.
"I don't know if you ever get totally over it," Cindric said of a crash like Briscoe's. "But when he puts his helmet on, it's removed. I've never seen a sign of him backing down or taking the easy way out. … That tells you a bit about his dedication to winning."
So what can Briscoe do for an encore? Well, he wouldn't rule out trying NASCAR; "It's a race car. I'm a racer," he said. But his passion is IndyCars, and he believes folks haven't seen his best there.
"I've really been learning so much over the last few years," he said. "I still feel like I'm learning. I gave up points last year and it often happened under caution or in pit road, so it's certainly an area where maybe my concentration lapsed a little bit because I wasn't going 200 mph."
Rick Mears, a former star driver who's an adviser for Penske's team, sees Briscoe accelerating through that learning curve every young driver must negotiate.
"Watching him race before he was racing for us, he was a little aggressive, a little anxious, a little on the gas all the time," Mears said. "It's easy to make mistakes that way. He realized that. I didn't even bring it up. He's settling in and settling down. Knowing when to roll the dice and when not to is the biggest gain he's made."
It also should help that there is stability on his crew and an increasing comfort level. With that often comes confidence and Briscoe has both, not to mention skills.
"I think he's a great talent," Wheldon said.
"He had an incredible season last year," added Briscoe's teammate Castroneves, a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner. "Ryan's going to continue driving well."
He, Briscoe and Power, the winner of this year's opener in Brazil, also should benefit from pushing each other and supporting each other week after week.
"Ryan's comfortable, but he's still driven and determined," Cindric said. "When you're expected to win instead of hoping to win, that's a different day. Learning when you need to push and when you know the car is at its limit as it is. That comes through experience and success."
And on the streets here, he has had both.
Brian Landman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3347.