- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Dan Wheldon won the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Sunday and was rightfully the center of attention after the race. But this was Michael Andretti's day, in every respect.
As a father, Michael watched his 18-year-old son Marco's gutsy drive to victory in his debut race in the Menard's Infiniti Pro Series.
A few hours later, his four-car Andretti Green Racing juggernaut bullied its way to the first 1-2-3-4 finish in IRL IndyCar Series competition. And wearing the cap of a race promoter for the first time, Andretti looked up and saw cloudless skies and fully occupied grandstands for the IndyCar Series' historic first non-oval event.
It all seemed a little too perfect.
"It's like a NASCAR race," quipped Dario Franchitti, who occupied the No. 3 slot for AGR after 100 laps of the widely praised St. Petersburg street course.
"It looked like the fix is on and I'm starting to believe it was," agreed Michael, smiling. "Everything that happened this weekend was incredible and it brought out a lot of emotions for me. Professionally, I can't remember a day when I was happier after a race, even for myself when I was driving."
Professionally, it was perfect. Personally, there was a bump in the road. The Andretti clan was rocked Saturday afternoon by the news that Marco's best friend William Riehl, 18, had died in a traffic accident in Melbourne, Fla.
A couple timely pep talks from Grandpa Mario (on hand for Marco's high-profile IPS debut) and Tony Kanaan helped Marco produce an extraordinary drive Sunday under extreme pressure. From pole position, Andretti ran wide at a corner and lost his early lead to Wade Cunningham, but he came back to make an instinctive move for the top spot while lapping Marty Roth.
"I told Marco to focus, do your job and win it for Will. And that's what he did," revealed Michael. "I'm proud of the job he did. The kid's 18 years old but he drove like a veteran all weekend long with all the pressure that he had. I'm truly impressed. I didn't think he would be ready for this much horsepower this soon, but he loved it and was quick from the first lap."
Still glowing from Marco's victory in the support race, Michael turned his attention to the main IndyCar event. Despite Franchitti's earlier quip, no one could have scripted the events that led to AGR's first 1-2-3-4. But even that wasn't Michael's loudest statement of the day, which came in the form of the success of the St. Petersburg street race, which drew an estimated 35,000 fans on race day.
"We were hoping for 50- to 70,000 over the three days and we exceeded our expectations," said Andretti Green Promotions partner Barry Green. "I think it's wonderful for open-wheel racing in this country. It's the kind of event we need to see more of, and the IRL seems to believe that, too."
"Dario and I rode around in the back of a truck on the parade lap and wondered what was the last time we had done this," said Kanaan, who put on an entertaining show on the way to second place. "It was almost three years since our last street race in CART and it felt great to hear the people screaming again. It felt like we were back in the old days and I think the IRL realizes that and hopefully there will be more events like this. We set the standard for a street race."
Andretti and his partners at Honda were the strongest proponents for the IndyCar Series' adoption of road racing and Michael has emerged as one of the few players in the industry capable of influencing IRL founder Tony George. After Sunday's race, Michael was asked if he would try to convince George to include more street racing events in the future.
"I'm hoping I don't have to say anything," Andretti replied. "I hope that this event would show this is the direction this series needs to go. I think [Tony] is sold on it. I think he knows we need to be at places like St. Petersburg and I'm sure you're going to see some in the future. That's why I felt it was so important to be here and to show what we can do. It couldn't have been any better for what's needed in this series right now."
Once a hero to CART fans, Michael has emerged as the new face of the IRL and on Sunday he wasn't shy about confronting critics who vilified him for switching sides in the American open-wheel war.
"Those people were ignorant about the product that we have here," Michael said. "Had they been following they would have seen that these cars were good right away on a road course. They're just people who want to say something negative about the IRL and now they've been shut up. The show today was as good as I've ever seen in a street race. There was passing, there was excitement … we had everything this weekend and I think it will shut up a lot of our critics."
Among those minds Michael needs to change is his father's. Mario Andretti has been an outspoken critic of George since the inception of the IRL and a selection of his typically candid opinions on the state of American open-wheel racing were published this week in the St. Petersburg Times. With Marco racing in the IPS support event, Sunday marked the first time that Mario attended an IndyCar Series race other than the Indianapolis 500.
"Dad being here this weekend was good and it was definitely nice for Marco to have him here," Michael said. "He was able to get a little look at what this is all about and I think he's starting to get a little more impressed with it."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.