IZOD IndyCar’s first race of the 2013 season on Sunday was planned for sunny March days in downtown St. Petersburg.
Planners always have bright hopes and the local chamber of commerce had two perfect Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg practice and qualifying days to brag about, but on race day, low clouds moved in to stay.
The good news—a 50 percent forecast of showers evaporated and rain was not a factor. The bad news—fog and speed on the transformed pavement were both factors.
Morphing an airport runway and streets along downtown St. Petersburg harbor into a world-class street course for high-powered IndyCar open-wheel race cars is a huge task. Tons of concrete barriers, miles of fencing and piles of used tires, combined with thousands of man hours, make for a special street racing environment.
IndyCar Fans from throughout the area flocked to the event, joining throngs of spring tourists to greet the first prime open-wheel race of the year.
Perennial contender Will Power snared the pole at SPGP, but during the race, a rare attention gaff by J.R. Hildebrand launched his National Guard Chevrolet over the right rear wheel of Power’s Verizon Chevrolet. That mistake caused Power to pit, owing to a flat tire and fender damage. He never recovered and finished in the 13th spot.
Power was pleased to start on the pole and shared his somewhat prophetic thoughts.
Will Power (No. 12, Team Penske)
"Yeah, definitely that is always the aim and good start to the year,” Power said. “You know, it keeps us out of trouble for the first part and see what we can do after that."
Although popular female driver Danica Patrick gone to NASCAR, the feminine gender in IndyCar racing is still not without representation. Indeed, Swedish driver Simona de Silvestro, has excelled during her open-wheel career.
De Silvestro made the final six and finished sixth in the SPGP after worn tires kept her from holding on to an impressive third-place running. She had comments before the green flag waved that cloudy afternoon.
Simona de Silvestro (No. 78 KV Racing)
“I like this place,” de Silvestro said. “It’s the season opener so you get really excited to finally go racing. I really like the track. I’ve always had a lot of fun here. When you know you have had really good results here, I think that really helps because you know you can be fast so you can have a little bit less doubt in you, I guess.”
Marco Andretti got around de Silvestro near the end of the race to get his podium finish.
Marco Andretti (No. 25 Andretti Autosport)
"For me, it felt like a win, but we'll take this,” Andretti said. “I think if we can have days like this all year, we can be in contention for a championship. That's obviously the goal.
“I knew her tires were going away," Andretti added. "She was braking really early. Yeah, I mean, it's a selfish business. I felt for her, but I needed this so bad. Like I said, it feels like a win.”
Helio Castroneves wanted to repeat his 2012 SPGP victory and was close in finishing second.
Helio Castroneves (No. 3 Team Penske)
“Unfortunately towards the end, the tire was just giving up,” Castroneves said. “I had to finish in second. Second is better than nothing. It's a great way to start the championship. I feel upset because, when you have a good car, it's hard to give up opportunities like that, especially in a series that's so competitive. That's why I'm a little bummed out. But I have to keep moving on and happy for a great start of the season like this.
“Hinch is not going to sleep tonight. He'll be over the moon. First win, you never forget. Last year, he already was really close to winning many races.”
James Hinchcliffe is talented on the track as well and is gregarious behind a microphone and engaging in front of the lenses.
James Hinchcliffe (No. 27 Andretti Autosport)
There's been a lot of talk about it in the off-season, when that first one was going to come, what we had to do to get there,” Hinchcliffe said after his first big win. “My answer was always the same. We had to minimize the mistakes. The team is good, the car is good, the engineers are good. We proved last year the team is capable of winning. It's down to me on any given Sunday to minimize mistakes.
“I guess we put a lot of effort into making sure it wasn't the guy driving Danica's car. We really wanted to make it our own by playing off her last year, things like that. I hope now, especially after things like this, You're the guy driving Danica's car. Hopefully, when we get to the races this year, it will be, 'That's Hinch's car.' ”
The Go Daddy.com car at Andretti Autosport was slated to be driven by the late Dan Wheldon, who had a home in St. Petersburg. His wife and children still reside near the downtown area where the race was run.
Hinchliffe had much to say on being the replacement driver for Dan Wheldon.
“It was quickly established that they wanted me in the car and I very much wanted to be in the car,“ Hinchcliffe said. “It hit me because it was a tremendous amount of responsibility, I felt, to honor Dan and do a good-enough job to honor what he would have done in this car.
“So to get the first win here in his hometown with his family here, who I've grown quite close to, it means so much more, to be honest. There's nowhere that I would have rather had my first win, I don't think, in this car than right here in St. Pete.
“They've been so nice to me, so accepting of me being in this car. They feel like family now.”
The 2013 IZOD IndyCar season may have started on a foggy, grey day in downtown St. Petersburg, but the racing was intense and the air comfortable for open-wheel fans.
IndyCar 2013 is off to a shiny start, pulled by a leader with a bright future.
FYI WIRZ is the select presentation of topics by Dwight Drum at Racetake.com. Unless otherwise noted, information and all quotes were obtained from personal interviews or official release materials provided by NASCAR and team representatives.