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Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Preview

Will Power leads teammate Juan Pablo Montoya into turn 2 at St. Petersburg. [Joe Jennings Photo]

Will Power leads teammate Juan Pablo Montoya into turn 2 at St. Petersburg.  [Joe Jennings Photo]

 

St. Petersburg Facts: The Verizon IndyCar Series rolls into downtown St. Petersburg, Florida for the 14th time on Sunday, March 12, after several weeks of pre-season testing on both road courses and ovals. The temporary street course on Tampa Bay runs past the modernistic Salvador Dali art museum, onto the runway of the Whitted Airport and near a soccer/baseball stadium. The 110-lap, 198-mile race is contested on a sometimes bumpy 1.8-mile, 14-turn course.

The defending series’ champion, Simon Pagenaud, won five races in 2016 and is hoping to be the first repeat champion for owner Roger Penske since Gil de Ferran went back-to-back in 2000-01.

Juan Pablo Montoya became a two-in-a row St. Pete winner last March, but has been replaced at Penske after winning just three times in the past two seasons. Josef Newgarden, who left Ed Carpenter Racing for the greener pastures of Penske Racing, will replace JPM, leaving Montoya to become the fifth entry for the Captain at the Indy 500 in May.

A Bit of History: The 2003 inaugural St. Petersburg Indy car event was a CART-sanctioned race captured by Canadian Paul Tracy piloting a Lola-Ford for Gerry Forsythe. Indy Car came next in 2005 (no race in 2004) and Tampa Bay-area’s Dan Wheldon beat Tony Kanaan to win his hometown race after leading just 10 laps.

The Field: Twenty-one Indy cars will face the initial green flag of 2017 Sunday, down from 22 last year and 24 in 2015. With the departure of Jimmy Vasser’s KV Racing Technology team from the grid, it will likely take 12 Indy-only entrants to complete the historic 500 grid come May.

St. Petersburg Entry: Chip Ganassi-Honda: (Max Chilton, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball)…Team Penske-Chevrolet: (Simon Pagenaud, Josef Newgarden, Helio Castroneves, Will Power)…Andretti Autosport-Honda: (Takuma Sato, Marco Andretti, Charlie Kimball)…AJ Foyt Racing-Chevrolet: (Conor Daly, Carlos Munoz)…Schmidt Peterson Motorsports-Honda: (Mikhail Aleshin, James Hinchcliffe)…Dale Coyne-Honda: (Sebastien Bourdais, Ed Jones)…Ed Carpenter Racing-Chevrolet: (JR Hildebrand, Spencer Pigot)…Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda: (Graham Rahal)…Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb Agajanian-Honda: (Alexander Rossi).

Missing this year from the 2016 St. Pete grid are Jack Hawksworth (Foyt), Luca Filippi (Coyne) and Montoya (Penske).

Ed Jones is the only rookie competing full-time this season. Jones was the 2016 Indy Lights champion having also won two Lights races at St. Pete in 2015.

Notes: Chip Ganassi signed GE Light-LED to replace long-time sponsor Target for Sunday’s race. No announcements were made regarding future season-long sponsors. There are only eight Chevys in the field vs. 13 Hondas after Ganassi (four cars) switched to Honda and Foyt (two cars) chose to be a Chevy team in 2017. Chevy has dominated road/street course races in recent years with a superior aero package. 2018 will see the series mandate a standard aero design for all cars in a move to equalize competition…Team Penske has won here eight times including four of the last five…Helio Castroneves (3) and Will Power (2), are the only drivers entered Sunday who have won more than once at St. Pete…When he takes the green flag, Tony Kanaan will be starting a record 266th consecutive Indy car race. TK and Castroneves are beginning their 20th year of Indy car competition…TV: Sunday, Noon E.T. (12:30 green flag), ABC network.

Our Take: This may be the year that Honda evens the score on road/street courses. With Honda having five more entries for each race, sheer numbers may give the nod to Honda more often. Ganassi’s Honda entries have a stronger driver lineup week to week than Foyt’s Chevy duo. Dixon could challenge for the series’ crown if Ganassi’s crew can adapt to Honda power and it’s aero package quickly. The switch in manufactures could give us an interesting season.

Final Word: Ed Jones No.19 Boy Scouts of America Coyne Honda– “Pre-season testing has gone pretty well. St. Pete is a track I’ve done well at in the past. For my first race (in Indy Car) it’s a little hard to know where you stand against the competition as there are so many variables. It’s hard to know until you get to that first qualifying session. I’ve always loved street courses. It’s where I made my debut in American racing and it was a perfect debut (two wins) so I have good memories there. The track is very technical and has a good variation of corners. It’s a very good place to start off the season.”

 

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Paul Gohde
Paul Gohde heard the sound of race cars early in his life. Growing up in suburban Milwaukee, just north of Wisconsin State Fair Park in the 1950's, Paul had no idea what "that noise" was all about that he heard several times a year. Finally, through prodding by friends of his parents, he was taken to several Thursday night modified stock car races on the old quarter-mile dirt track that was in the infield of the one-mile oval -and he was hooked. The first Milwaukee Mile event that he attended was the 1959 Rex Mays Classic won by Johnny Thomson in the pink Racing Associates lay-down Offy built by the legendary Lujie Lesovsky. After the 100-miler Gohde got the winner's autograph in the pits, something he couldn't do when he saw Hank Aaron hit a home run at County Stadium, and, again, he was hooked. Paul began attending the Indianapolis 500 in 1961, and saw A. J. Foyt's first Indy win. He began covering races in 1965 for Racing Wheels newspaper in Vancouver, WA as a reporter/photographer and his first credentialed race was Jim Clark's historic Indy win.Paul has also done reporting, columns and photography for Midwest Racing News since the mid-sixties, with the 1967 Hoosier 100 being his first big race to report for them. He is a retired middle-grade teacher, an avid collector of vintage racing memorabilia, and a tour guide at Miller Park. Paul loves to explore abandoned race tracks both here and in Europe, with the Brooklands track in Weybridge England being his favorite. Married to Paula, they have three adult children and two cats. Paul loves the diversity of all types of racing, "a factor that got me hooked in the first place."
Paul Gohde

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