On the Road…St. Pete

Team Penske Porsche RS Spyder drivers Romain Dumas and Timo Bernard were still smiling after their upset win at Sebring last month. I had the opportunity to speak to Dumas at St. Pete before Saturday’s American Le Mans Series Acura Sports Car Challenge. He told me after winning Sebring it was one the hardest races he had run in a long time. He ran full out on all of his stints and needed a couple of days to recover physically. Porsche had a rough race in St. Pete last year and they were looking good in practice until they lost a wheel. Yet, they were able to rebound as the well prepared Team Penske crew got the car ready in time for the car to get pole for P2. However it was the Audi R10/TDI’s drive that got everybody’s attention as Marco Werner took overall pole by 7/10 of second. Werner was pushing the car to it’s limit and even spun it, avoiding making contact. I spoke to Marco after qualifying and he was still pumped after his dramatic run. I asked Werner about the street car course and how the Audi has adapted to it’s tight corners and long straights. Werner said the two straightaways really helped them use the advantage of the torque of the Audi TDI diesel, he felt the lap he did in qualifying was most he could get out of his car. On the other side of the coin, was the second Audi of Frank Biela and Emmanuelle Pirro who struggled in their practice. The good news is Pirro told me is 100 percent since his crash at Road Atlanta. With qualifying over, the festering rivalry between the Audi and Porsche teams was ready to bubble over as the fans got ready to see the 28-car field on Saturday.

The race was entertaining as Werner pulled away from the #7 Porsche of Timo Bernard at the start. Yellow flags kept the #7 Porsche close to the lead and with some crafty pit strategy the #7 Porsche got the lead and the race was on. Porsche driver, Romain Dumas one of the best drivers in traffic started to pull away but a couple of late yellows kept the faster Audi of Lucas Luhr close. On the restart, Luhr passed the rival Porsche with less than three minutes remaining to give the Audi R10/TDI its first ALMS win of the season.

Luhr had fun racing hard on the tight street circuit, joked after the race, “There were a few times at the end of the race, I just had to laugh in the cockpit because from inside I could see how close it was and I know my co-driver is not the youngest anymore and I was worried about giving him a heart attack.” Luhr added, “I was really mad when that last yellow came out and was a little afraid we wouldn’t get another try at him. But there was no doubt, I would try everything. Either we would go into a wall or we would win everything.”

However, I think the story of the weekend was American rising star, Graham Rahal. Rahal, who had to sit out last week’s opener in Homestead-Miami Speedway due to a crash, came back to win the Indy Car Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Sunday. Newman-Haas-Lanigan Racing who has been working non-stop with barely any sleep certainly had their hard work reap dividends. Rahal had a rough start after starting ninth. On lap 37 he made contact with Will Power causing him to spin. “It was tough,” Rahal said. “After getting hit by Will (Power) in the rain and everything, it was going to be a tough start. It doesn’t get any sweeter than this; to expect a win in our first race. We had the pace and we pulled away from them, so it wasn’t like we lucked into it. This is just awesome.”

Since the start of the season NHL Racing has only received two cars so after Rahal’s heavy crash the Tuesday before the Homestead race, they didn’t have a back-up car for him. For team like NHL Racing not have back up cars is unheard of, but the team rebounded and was loaded for bear at St. Pete. The team’s experience certainly paid off, as some of those guys been there for over fifteen years and they know how to get the job done.

With Rahal winning his first IndyCar Series start. He joins Buzz Calkins (Walt Disney World, 1996), Juan Montoya (Indianapolis, 2000) and Scott Dixon (Homestead-Miami, 2003) as drivers to win in their first IndyCar Series start.

Rahal really showed his maturity on the final restart when two-time Indy 500 winner and road course wizard Helio Castroneves was lined up behind him. Castroneves made sure the young Rahal saw him in his mirrors as they approached the green flag. “Obviously Helio (Castroneves) is very successful and has won a lot of races, but at the same time I knew we had the pace and I knew if I could just keep calm we could pull away. We were pulling away before and we were aggressively fuel saving, so I knew if I could attack the car we could pull away.” Rahal said. (About the last lap) “First of all, there’s one more and you just don’t want your focus to get off of the car and the race, so for me I just needed to keep calm and make it through the last set of corners, especially since there was a yellow out on Turn 11. So I just wanted to be cautious, but I knew we had quite the gap so I wasn’t too worried.

Three-time Indy Car Champion Mario Andretti was there to see Marco run for the first time this year and was very happy to see the two get together. He liked how Marco ran at Homestead and he thinks a new chapter can begin and they can build from it.

The 2008 IndyCar Series season continues with the Indy Japan 300 on April 19 at Twin Ring Motegi.

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