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Verizon IndyCar Series: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Preview

Team Penske's Will Power is ready to start a new Verizon IndyCar season. [credit Andy Clary / Spacesuit Media]

Team Penske’s Will Power is ready to start a new Verizon IndyCar season. [credit Andy Clary / Spacesuit Media]

 

by Paul Gohde

It has been six months since the Verizon IndyCar Series saw the checkered flag at Sonoma Raceway in California as Josef Newgarden drove his Team Penske Chevrolet to the 2017 season championship. But the wait is over as the largest series’ starting field in several seasons can’t wait to take an opening shot at the 2018 crown Sunday as the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg hits the streets and runways of the waterfront Florida city for the 15th time.

RACE FACTS:  The CART series began Indy car competition at the 1.8-mile city course in February, 2003, as Canadian Paul Tracy began a run to the ’03 series’ championship with his first of three straight wins to open the season. Sebastien Bourdais won here for Dale Coyne Honda last season despite a penalty, incurred in qualifying, that forced him to start the race in last place. He worked his way to the front and held off runner-up Simon Pagenaud by a surprising 10-seconds. Pole winner Will Power looked strong early, but a punctured tire put his pit stops off sequence and the day got worse when his Team Penske Dallara ran over an air hose exiting the pits resulting in a disappointing 19th-place finish to start the season. Helio Castroneves has won here three times and Team Penske has been strong with eight victories including four of the last six. Penske’s cars have also been pole winners in eight of the last 11 St. Pete events.

THE OFF SEASON: Three new teams have joined the series for 2018: Carlin (2 entries), Harding (1) are full-season, while at the present Juncos (1) and Michael Shank SPM (1) will run on a limited basis. With Penske and Ganassi cutting their numbers, the starting grid at St. Petersburg should still number a solid 24. The new common aero bodywork that has been tested in the off season will be run by all of the teams whether Honda or Chevrolet. The bodywork design should make the cars more drive-able and even the playing field for all teams. Helio Castroneves has left Indy Car to run in the Weather Tech sports car series racing for The Captain, while seven rookies will start the season at St. Petersburg. Series CEO Mark Miles has been busy trying to land a new series sponsor as Verizon concludes its run after 2018. He is also working on a new TV contract for next year and beyond while also trying to lure a third engine manufacturer into the series. Watkins Glen has been dropped from the series’ schedule and Portland returns on Labor Day weekend after a several years’ hiatus.

THE FIELD: Teams on the grid for St. Petersburg:  AJ Foyt Chevrolet– (Tony Kanaan/Matheus Leist *)    Andretti Honda– (Zach Veach */Alexander Rossi/Ryan Hunter-Reay/Marco Andretti)  Carlin Chevrolet – Charlie Kimball/Max Chilton)  Ganassi Honda – (Scott Dixon/Ed Jones)  Coyne Honda – (Zachary Claman DeMelo */Sebastien Bourdais)  Carpenter Chevrolet – (Jordan King */Spencer Pigot)   Harding Chevrolet – (Gabby Chaves)   Juncos Chevrolet – (Rene Binder *   Shank  SPM Honda – (Jack Harvey *)   Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda – (Graham Rahal/ Takuma Sato)   Schmidt Peterson Honda – (James Hinchcliffe/ Robert Wickens *)   Penske Chevrolet – (Will Power/ Simon Pagenaud/ Josef Newgarden)   ( * = Rookie Driver)

NOTES: Conor Daly has landed an Indy 500-only ride for Dale Coyne with Thom Burns Racing. Daly has been without a ride since being dropped by AJ Foyt after just one season…Tony Kanaan is scheduled to make his 283rd consecutive start Sunday…The St. Pete race will be for 198 miles/110 laps…Will Power (2010 and 2014) is the only entered driver to win more than once at St. Petersburg…Helio Castroneves will serve as Grand Marshal of the race…TV: Race-ABC network (12:30pm ET).

Our Take: With seven rookies entered Sunday and powerhouse teams Penske and Ganassi having slimmed down to 3/2 veteran drivers respectively, it’s likely that a real mixture of rookies and vets will vie for Top 10 finishes. We look for Matheus Leist, Robert Wickens and Zach Veach to do well. Team Penske has dominated here over the years so our pick to win for Chevrolet is Will Power or Scott Dixon for Honda.

The Final Word: Takuma Sato (No. 30 Panasonic Honda): “We all have brand new cars with the new aero kit…The car works extremely well and looks cool. It’s more difficult to drive, which is good. For the drivers there is definitely more action involved in the cockpit due to less downforce which makes the car slide around. It’s a little unknown right now…I haven’t raced with the other cars yet in the street course package.”

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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.”