Street party new for series, but not for city
Only 15 months have passed since what many fans remember as "CART" ceased to exist, but it looks like there's already an unofficial reunion.
It's the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, where the featured stars will be the drivers, teams, sponsors and manufacturers that dominated CART-sanctioned Indy-style racing during the '80s and '90s, racing on a street course inaugurated by CART in 2003 in an event organized and promoted by former CART luminaries.
The only difference most St. Petersburg locals might notice is louder, normally aspirated racecars (CART used turbo powerplants), though if they look closely they'll see the words "Indy Racing League" prominently featured on every firesuit and uniform, showing that IRL founder Tony George is the new boss in town.
Fittingly, this "CART reunion" will take place in a cosmopolitan urban setting featuring a downtown street course. And that's what makes this race so significant for George's open-wheel series: It's the IRL's road-racing debut after 105 consecutive events staged on ovals. In the IndyCar Series' 10th season, after 85,724 consecutive left turns, King George finally said, "Turn right!"
And the people responded with great joy.
Within the IndyCar Series paddock, at least, everyone, with the possible exceptions of those having the last name 'Foyt,' is thrilled that the IndyCar Series has embraced road and street racing.
With this weekend's Honda GP centered at the heart of downtown St. Pete instead of at a dusty oval 20 or 40 miles out of town, parties and corporate functions are scattered throughout the weekend, all within convenient walking distance of the track and hotels. Honda and Red Bull both have large-scale entertainment plans. "Our hospitality area will be overflowing on Sunday," a Rahal Letterman Racing source said.
But then look at who is the driving force behind the revived St. Pete race, which springs back to life after a one-year absence with the potential of growing into a marquee event for the IndyCar Series. Andretti Green Promotions is co-owned by open-wheel legend Michael Andretti (who made five IRL race starts near the end of his career, but had 42 CART race wins that defined his legacy) and Barry Green, a CART team owner from 1994-2002 most famous for coming out on the winning (1995) and losing (2002) side of controversial Indianapolis 500 finishes.
"Andretti Green Promotions is thrilled with the opportunity that lies ahead in St. Petersburg," Green said. "It's a terrific venue and has all the elements necessary to create a successful event for the city, the fans, the competitors, a national television audience and the Indy Racing League."
The man who readied the 1.8-mile street/airport course for racing is Kirk Russell, who served as CART's chief steward and rule writer from 1979 to 2001. In 2003, CART drivers said the St. Pete track was one of the best street courses in America, and with some walls pulled back and FIA-style curbing now installed at Turns 1 and 10, it should be even better.
"Barry said he hopes to make it the Long Beach of the east," Russell said. "It's a phenomenal layout with a nice flow to it and some real challenging corners. It's as nice as anything I have ever seen. And since a third of the track is bordered by the harbor, we're putting in temporary docks so big boats will be able to pull into the south marina and watch."
They're hoping to replicate the success of the 2003 St. Petersburg race, which was organized by the same group that runs the Long Beach GP and staged in February as the CART season opener. Former CART CEO Chris Pook said that race-day crowd was 35,000.
"We hit a home run -- a grand slam home run!" was St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker's assessment of the 2003 event, though the race itself wasn't particularly notable. Paul Tracy won it by 12.1 seconds over Michel Jourdain Jr., with Bruno Junqueira third.
If anything, St. Pete 2003 is mainly remembered for the remarkable American debut of Sebastien Bourdais, who claimed pole position and sprinted to a 17-second lead in the first 30 laps before a rookie mistake relegated the Frenchman to an unrepresentative 11th-place finish.
Local media came away from the event with a favorable impression. "The Bay area's first big-league Indy-style race brought out the best in temporary street course racing: a festive atmosphere, an enthusiastic crowd, wonderful-sounding engines and interesting sights," said the Tampa Tribune. "[But] it also brought out the worst: a dull race ..."
The IndyCar Series, accustomed to frenetic split-second finishes in its full-throttle oval races, is certainly hoping its road racing kickoff produces a closer and more exciting race than the one CART put on in 2003. It's bound to, simply because there is so much that can go haywire in terms of drivers who haven't turned right in years and cars that have never been subjected to the demands of 100 laps around a bumpy street course.
The St. Pete race also is a test for the IndyCar Series and for American open-wheel racing in general. As NASCAR becomes increasingly synonymous with oval racing in America, will the IndyCar Series attract more fans to St. Pete and its two additional road races later this year than it generally has to its many disappointingly attended events at ovals?
And if so, will that subsequently lead to oval venues being dropped from the IndyCar calendar, to be replaced by more road and street races that so many series drivers, sponsors and manufacturers crave?
By Sunday evening, we'll start to have some answers. It promises to be an interesting weekend ... and a heck of a street party.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.