Monday, March 13, 2017

Musings From the Weekend: An Exceptional Event

Sébastien Bourdais went last-to-first in St. Petersburg while brakes stole the storylines for most of the St. Petersburg weekend. There was a historically young winner in Indy Lights. The Pirelli World Challenge season started pretty much where it left off in 2016. The Supercross season got a little bit more interesting in Daytona. The World Superbike world may be in trouble. World Supersport had another first time Italian winner. NASCAR will voice its displeasure publicly about the post-race incident at Las Vegas but privately celebrates a new addition to the promotion montage. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

An Exceptional Event
Racers flock to Florida during winter. If you are a retiree with a winter home and enjoy racing, you can fill your winter with big events just within the Sunshine State. The 24 Hours of Daytona commences the North American racing season in late-January, two weeks later Daytona 500 practice and qualifying begins followed the next week by the race. Then comes March and just before the 12 Hours of Sebring you can head to the left side of the state and another high-class event.

The Grand Prix of St. Petersburg has reached a new level. It is no longer a street course race waiting to die. It has reached a level of Long Beach, Toronto and Surfers Paradise, street courses that have withstood incompetent promoters, disinterested local governments and pissed off locals. The race is approaching two decades on the calendar and the event has only gotten better since its inaugural running in 2003.

From an obscure CART event during a transition period for that dying series to the first street circuit race for the IRL, St. Petersburg survived reunification and has moved from February to March to April and back to March again. The event has gone from an IRL-ALMS doubleheader to a four-day weekend full of IndyCar, all three Road to Indy series, Pirelli World Challenge and Stadium Super Trucks to round everything off.

For almost 15 years, St. Petersburg hasn't disappointed race fans. Sure the early IRL days weren't that inspiring but at least you had the LMP1 monster Audi R10 competing head-to-head with Penske's Porsche RS Spyders and the Acura ARX program. It hasn't produced the greatest IndyCar races ever but they are far from the worst. We saw Andretti Green Racing sweep the top four positions in 2005, Graham Rahal become the youngest winner in IndyCar in 2008, the introduction of the DW12 chassis in 2012, James Hinchcliffe score his first victory in 2013 and this year's race where plucky Dale Coyne Racing went from 21st-to-1st with Sébastien Bourdais and they get to be kings for a day... or until Long Beach.

More important than stunning on-track action though is the locals have embraced the race and Dan Wheldon moving to the area helped in that matter. Most drivers don't win somewhere and then decide to move there. The Hunter-Reays aren't living on a farm at Iowa because of Ryan's success at the 7/8ths of a mile oval. Will Power doesn't live in wine country because of his Sonoma success. Scott Dixon isn't shacking up in the middle of the Buckeye State because he has dominated Mid-Ohio. Wheldon became an adopted son and his presences was great enough that the city honored him with a memorial statue and street named after the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner after his death in 2011. Honoring Wheldon was enough but even Bourdais, who lives in the St. Petersburg-area, got the local treatment leading up to this year's race.

St. Petersburg isn't perfect. I wish the straightaway to turn four and the straightaway to turn ten was slightly longer to create two more passing zones and I don't necessarily believe the IndyCar season has to open in St. Petersburg or St. Petersburg has to be the first round in the United States should IndyCar start the season abroad but St. Petersburg is a destination if you are a IndyCar fan and maybe if you are a motorsports fan in general.

Practice begins on Thursday! It continues on Friday and then there are two days full of races with on track action from 8:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. each day. Pirelli World Challenge might not have the jaw-dropping LMP1 machines of the ALMS days but the grid is full of talented names such as Johnny O'Connell, Álvaro Parente, Patrick Long and Ryan Dalziel with a more impressive list of manufactures from Cadillacs to Chevrolet Camaros, Mercedes to McLaren, Porsche to KTM, Audi to Ford. Each Road to Indy series gets a doubleheader and the likes of Josef Newgarden, Spencer Pigot and Sage Karam have all started their pursuit of IndyCar on the streets of St. Petersburg.

Bayshore Drive and the view of the marina are just as notable to IndyCar as Shoreline Drive and the Queen Mary in Long Beach. While Long Beach's future is tentatively unknown for IndyCar, St. Petersburg doesn't appear to be heading anywhere. If you have free time next March or are on spring break and are a race fan, maybe consider a trip down to St. Petersburg.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Sébastien Bourdais but did you know...

Aaron Telitz and 16-year-old Colton Herta split the Indy Lights races at St. Petersburg. Anthony Martin swept the Pro Mazda races. Robert Megennis and Oliver Askew split the U.S. F2000 races.

Martin Truex, Jr. won the NASCAR Cup race at Las Vegas. Joey Logano won the Grand National Series race.

Álvaro Parente and Patrick Long split the Pirelli World Challenge GT races from St. Petersburg. Andrew Aquilante swept the GTS races.

Jonathan Rea swept the Superbike races at Buriram and he is 4-for-4 this season. Federico Caricasulo won the Supersport race.

Eli Tomac won the Supercross race at Daytona.

Kris Meeke won Rally Mexico.

Coming Up This Weekend
NASCAR remains out west and heads south to Phoenix.
The 12 Hours of Sebring.
Supercross heads to another motorsports mecca in Indianapolis.