Photo: Chris Owens/INDYCAR

Event Preview: The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

By Frank Santoroski, Staff Writer

This coming weekend the Verizon IndyCar Series will kick off their 2017 season with a return to St. Petersburg, Florida for what has become known as “The World’s Fastest Spring Break Party.”

The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is round one of seventeen for the Series in 2017. The event is held on a temporary street circuit, one of five such races on the schedule. The race weekend is scheduled March 10-12, 2017.

The defending race champion is Juan Pablo Montoya, who took back-to-back St. Pete wins in 2015-2016. Montoya is not entered in this year’s event, having been replaced by Josef Newgarden in the No. 2 Penske-Chevrolet entry.  This will be the 14th race for IndyCars in St. Petersburg.

The race will consist of 110 laps for a total race distance of 198.00 miles. Standard road course qualifying procedures will apply.

Support races include action from the Mazda Road to Indy Ladder series’ Indy Lights, Pro Mazda, and USF2000.

About the Track

The temporary street circuit in St. Petersburg is constructed along the public roads on the shore of Tampa Bay, and utilizes the runway at Albert Whitted Airport as its front straight. The 14-turn course covers 1.8 miles circling around picturesque Pioneer Park and Al Lang Stadium. The back half of the circuit follows the contour of Bay Shore Drive past the St. Petersburg Yacht Club and Municipal Marina.

The long front stretch ends in a quick right-left combination in turns one and two, that has caused some hairy moments in past races. The braking zone in turn ten, and the hairpin turn 13-14 have offered passing opportunities as well.

Event History

St. Petersburg first heard the roar of racing through its city streets back in 1985, when the SCCA Trans-Am and Can Am series’ raced along the Bay front. The event was short lived, having been plagued by complaints from the locals. The race was shelved in 1990, but returned in 1996 on a course built around Tropicana Field.

The Bay Shore course was modified in 2003, and hosted the CART Series with Paul Tracy taking the win. The event was dropped in 2004 as CART was embroiled in bankruptcy.

The Indy Racing League added the race to its schedule in 2005, and it has remained ever since, growing into an event that has become quite popular with both fans and drivers.  St Petersburg was first scheduled as the IndyCar season-opener in 2009, and has served as the first stop on the calendar continuously since 2011.

Dan Wheldon, driving for Andretti-Green Racing, took the 2005 win.  After Wheldon, a resident of St. Petersburg, died in 2011, the section of the course between turns 10 and 11, where Wheldon pulled off the race-winning pass, was renamed Dan Wheldon Way in his honor.

In 2008, Graham Rahal won at St. Pete becoming the first ChampCar transplant to win in the newly-merged series. In doing so, he also became the youngest winner in a major American open-wheel race at the age of 19 years, 93 days.

The most prolific winners of the Grand Prix have been Team Penske, with eight wins among four different drivers.

About the Field

The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series Field represents one of the strongest, talent-packed top-to-bottom lineups in all of racing.

21 drivers will take the green flag in St. Petersburg. Of those, four are former winners at at the venue. Helio Castroneves has won three times, Will Power twice, while James Hinchcliffe and Graham Rahal have one win apiece.

The reigning Series Champion is Simon Pagenaud, who drives the No. 1 PPG Industries Chevrolet for Team Penske. Pagenaud, who hails from Poitiers, France, is in his third season with Team Penske, and 2016 marked his first series title.

Fifteen of the entered drivers are IndyCar race winners, six have won championships in IndyCar or CART/Champcar, and five are Indy 500 winners. There will be one true rookie in the field, with Ed Jones making his debut behind the wheel of the No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Dale Coyne Racing Honda.

Drivers finding a new home this year include the aforementioned Josef Newgarden, who is making his debut with Team Penske. Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly both move to the ABC Supply A.J. Foyt Racing Team, which is also making a switch from Honda to Chevrolet Power. Takuma Sato replaces Munoz at Andretti Autosport, while Sebastien Bourdais will take over Daly’s old seat at Dale Coyne Racing.

JR Hildebrand returns to the series, taking the spot at Ed Carpenter Racing that was vacated by Newgarden. Hildebrand’s last full season in the IndyCar Series was in 2012. Chip Ganassi Racing retains its 2016 driver lineup, but is making a transition to Honda power from Chevrolet.

Drivers in the series represent twelve different countries around the globe, making it a truly international field.

About the Series

The current Verizon IndyCar Series was born out of the Indy Racing League, which absorbed the rival ChampCar World Series in 2008. In the years since the reunification, the series has seen steady growth in attendance and television ratings.

The positive growth in recent years bodes well for the Series that is owned by Hulman and Company. The centerpiece of the series is the Indianapolis 500, which will run for the 101st time in May. Mark Miles is the Chief Executive of Hulman and Company, and Jay Frye is the President of Competition and Operations for the Verizon Indycar Series.

Teams in the series use a common chassis, the Dallara DW-12, named in honor of the late Dan Wheldon, who did much of the development testing of the car. The chassis has aerodynamic components that differ according to the engine manufacturer. The 2017 rules called for a freeze on aero-kit development, in anticipation of a common aero package for 2018.

Chevrolet and Honda are the engine partners for the Series with each supplying a 2.2 Liter V-6 turbocharged engine to the teams that are capable of producing over 700 hp at 12200 rpm. All cars in the series run Firestone Firehawk tires.

Where and When to Watch

Tickets for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg can be purchased here. Ticket prices range from $20 for a single-day general admission up to $135.00 for a three-day upper level grandstand seat with plenty of options in between.

Television coverage will be provided by ABC-TV.  Race coverage will begin at 12:00 noon EDT on Sunday March 12. Practice, qualifying and support races can be found streaming on the Verizon IndyCar Series You Tube Channel, Facebook Page or at http://racecontrol.indycar.com/

Other coverage options include Sirius XM radio (Sirius:209, XM:212). Fans can also keep up with all of the action on the IndyCar Mobile app provided by Verizon Communications.

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A life-long racing enthusiast, Santoroski attended his first live race in 1978, the Formula One Grand Prix of the United States at Watkins Glen. Following graduation from Averett College, Santoroski covered the CART series through the 1990s and 2000s for CART Pages and Race Family Motorsports in addition to freelance writing for various print and web sources. He produces a variety of current and historical content for Motorsports Tribune and serves as the host for the weekly radio broadcast,Drafting the Circuits,

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