STORY BY BRUCE MARTIN
ST. PETERSBURG, Florida – After the longest off-season in professional sports the IZOD IndyCar Series is back with one of the most popular events of the season – the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
It’s not only the first race of the season it’s also the starting block for the stars, cars and teams that will compete in the 97th Indianapolis 500 on May 26. Of the 25 drivers that will start Sunday’s race on the streets of St. Petersburg it’s highly likely that one of these drivers will be the Indianapolis 500 champion and get a chance to take a drink out of the bottle of milk in Victory Lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Defending IZOD IndyCar Series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay is hoping he is that driver. He hopes to get off to a fast start in Sunday’s race that airs at 12 noon Eastern Time on the NBC Sports Network and continue the momentum he gained from the 2012 championship into the Month of May and the Indy 500.
“We are ready to get to work,” Hunter-Reay said. “This has been a long off-season. One that has been busy for me off the track but I’m really looking forward to getting back in the car and defending the No. 1 that we really worked for so hard last year. It’s tough because I can feel it is going to be tougher, more challenging to defend a championship. In 2012, there were a lot of first for us. To replicate it and duplicate it will really take a redoubling of our efforts and look into ourselves to how we can improve because if we are not moving forward we are moving backward.
“Winning a championship is something I’ve dreamed of doing since I was a kid. We realized it as a team and I realized that I’m just one part of that equation. Certainly celebrating with our teammates was big but we are ready to move on to 2013 and defend our championship. It’s been a long, hard road to get here and we have more work to do and we are ready to redouble our efforts to defend that in 2013. I’ve spent so much time watching Dario Franchitti celebrate a championship throughout my career it was really nice to change that up for once. It’s a huge honor.”
In 2012, Hunter-Reay gave the United States its first IZOD IndyCar Series champion since 2006 when Sam Hornish, Jr. won the title. As the 2013 season begins, the next step is for the Andretti Autosport driver to become the first American-born Indianapolis 500 winner since Hornish also did it in 2006.
“Indy is the big one,” Hunter-Reay said. “That is the one we are focused on and I’m sure the one everyone else is focused on as well. It’s one of the races Chevrolet didn’t win last year so there is a lot of time and effort going into that. Trust me; it’s something that we think about often. We qualified on the front row last year and ran in the top three or four and had a really good car then had a CV joint failure. It’s one that potentially got away. We are going back hoping to have a similar beginning to our month which is qualifying on the front row.”
The season begins with three street and road course races including St. Petersburg, followed by the natural terrain road course at Barber Motorsports Park and then the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach – a race Hunter-Reay has won.
“I think Long Beach is certainly a strong point for us; Brazil is as well,” Hunter-Reay said. “We need better finishes at St. Pete. I’ve had a third and a second there. I’ve had two seconds at Brazil. I’m tired of those second place trophies. We need a better finish at Barber and obviously a better finish at Indy. There are some tracks that really suit us and there are some that we really need to step it up in 2013.”
It was at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2011 that may have actually started Hunter-Reay’s drive to the championship in 2012. He missed making the 33-driver starting lineup on Bump Day and was prepared to watch the 100th Anniversary Indianapolis 500 on the sidelines. At the time, team owner Michael Andretti called it the lowest point in his career but Andretti struck a deal with fellow team owner A.J. Foyt to put Hunter-Reay in a car that was already qualified by Bruno Junqueira.
Although the move was quite unpopular at the time because Junqueira had earned his way into the starting lineup it was not unprecedented. It wasn’t the way Hunter-Reay wanted to get into the race but with big-time sponsors DHL and Sun-Drop supporting his effort at Andretti Autosport a business decision had to be made to satisfy the sponsors.
It also lit a fire under his crew at Andretti Autosport that would ultimately culminate with the championship in 2012.
“That was certainly a low point for us; the point that was a kick in the pants,” Hunter-Reay recalled. “That got us going to where we are because we hit that low; we hit that bottom. Michael said to me at the time ‘This will never happen again, we are going to win races. Enough of this.’ We went out and did really well after Indy that year, won a race at New Hampshire and closed out the season among the best in points for the second half of the season.
“Going into 2012 we had that momentum and the championship is a testament to how far we have come since 2011.”
Hunter-Reay was the most diverse driver in the IZOD IndyCar Series in 2012 with four victories including two ovals and two street races.
There is no better place to get the season started for the IZOD IndyCar Series than the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
It’s auto racing’s version of “Spring Break” with plenty of sunshine, a spectacular backdrop against the water of Tampa Bay, a vibrant downtown setting in one of Florida’s best resort cities and plenty of high-speed action on the streets of St. Pete.
Originally part of the Champ Car World Series schedule in 2003, it has become a much-anticipated highlight of the IZOD IndyCar Series beginning in 2005. Since that time it has become one of the top-four races on the IndyCar schedule joining such iconic events as the Indianapolis 500, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach and the Saturday night race every June at Texas Motor Speedway.
Some of the great names of this era of IndyCar racing have won this race including Paul Tracy, the late Dan Wheldon, Helio Castroneves, Will Power and Dario Franchitti. Young Graham Rahal achieved history when he became the youngest driver ever to win an IndyCar race as the 19-year-old scored a win in his first-ever race in this series.
Not only is Castroneves a three-time Indy 500 winner he is a three-time winner of the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and is attempting to go back-to-back at St. Pete for the second time in his career.
“The atmosphere is great,” Castroneves said. “The fans are awesome. The weather is beautiful. It’s the first race of the season. When you put everything together, you just are super excited to be back in the race car and ready to go. So it’s a place where everything starts, a special place to start the season that you can see it’s going to be very exciting.”
Castroneves scored an emotional win in last year’s race. It was the first race for the series since popular two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and 2005 IndyCar champion Dan Wheldon was killed in a horrific crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on October 16, 2011. It was also the first race for the Dallara DW12 IndyCar which was renamed in his honor.
And it came in Wheldon’s hometown as the driver from Emberton, England moved to this Gulf Coast city early in his IndyCar career. So when Castroneves drove to the win, he stopped at the street that has been renamed Dan Wheldon Way in honor of the fallen star, climbed the fence and touched the sign honoring Wheldon.
“Certainly the end was awesome, but the beginning of the race was actually pretty good,” Castroneves recalled. “We started in sixth place and we just managed to stay out of trouble. As soon as some of the leaders made a pit stop, we decided to stay out, and from there on, it was just a matter of keep going and over the pits. We were able to come back in second place behind the Ganassi guys, Scott Dixon, and we were able to make a great move on the outside, turn one, and passed for the win. So we were extremely excited and happy to start the season like that.
“The celebration was even better, having the Dan Wheldon sign in respect over there, and to celebrate, it was a memorable coincidence and it was just really great, great to remember him the way he lived, and not what happened the year before. So it was a very emotional, crazy win.”
The Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg celebrates the end of a very long offseason for the high-speed, open-wheel series which has been in virtual hibernation since Hunter-Reay clinched the IZOD IndyCar Series championship at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California on September 16, 2012.
“It seems like a long time ago at Fontana,” said four-time IZOD IndyCar Series champion three-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti, whose streak of three-straight IndyCar championships ended last season. “I’ve driven the race car precisely twice since then. We get asked ‘how is the car?’ and I don’t really know. I don’t really know where we are but we have made some gains over the winter.
“We’ll see how it goes once we get to St. Petersburg. We used the race engines last week at the test at Barber Motorsports Park so we couldn’t go out there and run up the miles. The engineers had a lot of time in the offseason at Honda and Chevrolet. Although the car may look the same underneath there are a lot of tiny details that will look different. But it was definitely a very long offseason.”
Hitting the streets of St. Pete also signals the first race of a 19-race schedule in 2013 that will feature the return of some tremendous race drivers, teams and venues while featuring such additions as three double-header race weekends and “standing starts” at the street contests at Toronto in July and Houston in October.
The double-headers will be held at the Chevrolet Belle Isle Grand Prix of Detroit on June 1-2, the Honda Indy Toronto on July 13-14 and the Shell-Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston on October 5-6.
Those additions will bring a little bit of variety to some of the vents but some of the competitors question the validity of those changes.
“The double-headers I’m on the fence,” said 2008 Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon of Target/Chip Ganassi Racing. “Some people like it; some people don’t. I like the fact when you are at the track you are going to race more but I like racing. Does it take away from the big event on Sunday? Sometimes less is more than piling on more. Until we see where that goes it’s a bit of an unknown.
“Standing starts – I don’t think the equipment is really made for it. Trying to get consistency a lot of people have tried to test that on testing days but each day you go to do a typical start the start point of the clutch moves. It will mix it up whether that is a good thing or not. The weak point is the clutch system. It’s just not made for that. You don’t really know when it is going to let go. As far as reliability the car will be fine.”
Dixon’s two IndyCar titles have been separated by five years. It has been five years since his last championship in 2008. He has been a major factor in the last seven championship battles and is hoping to finally cross the threshold to score his third series championship.
“I wish it were that easy,” Dixon said. “The last few years have obviously been strong. Since 2006 we have finished every year in the top three but have only capitalized on one of those which is a little annoying. Last year was pretty decent. We had lots of ups and downs – mechanical issues, Milwaukee; I stepped on it at Texas. There were lots of places where we could have come up with 35 points that we didn’t win the championship by. It’s always easy to look back but this year we need to do the same and refine it a little bit and make up the points difference that we had.
“It is frustrating when you are so close so many times. It is good to know you are in the hunt and you can say that about a lot of others. In some years when you win championships you get into a roll and strike some good luck but we have plateaued in an area where we were close but not great. You get into those flows. Dario has been on a great run recently. I think Ryan Hunter-Reay had races last year where they may not have had a great car but were still able to use strategy and him drive through to get great points or win a race. That is what you have to do to win a championship in the end.”
At least Dixon has won two IndyCar championships. Team Penske’s Will Power would like to finally get his first title. The hard-charger on the street and road courses has failed to find the same formula on the oval tracks and that has cost him the championship the past three seasons. After crashing in the season’s final race on the 2-mile oval at Fontana last September Power lost the title by just four points to Hunter-Reay.
Hunter-Reay outscored Power by a whopping 82 points on the oval tracks on the schedule and proved to be the better all-around driver with four victories including two on short ovals and two on street courses.
“I just need to score four more points,” Power said last week during the preseason test at Barber. “It’s not really to change much. We made changes within the team and had a relaxing off-season. I’ve never seen a team work so hard in the off-season really. Me personally as well so all we can do is bring what we’ve got, do our absolute best. My approach to the season is really no different than it’s been the last three years. Just going to keep chipping away and hopefully at some point we can get the thing done.
“I think you learn to finish second. I’ve finished there three times. A week after the race we were back in the shop talking about next year already. I have to say it was the most relaxed off-season I’ve ever had. I just kind of enjoyed it. It is what it is. I get to compete at a high level with probably the best team year after year and it’s just an enjoyable thing to do. It’s cool that we are always there in the hunt for the championship and it’s a real motivation to try and get that done.”
Power is determined and driven but he certainly won’t let his championship shortcomings define him.
“I just think that as you go on in life, just in general or with your job, whatever that may be and for me it’s racing, you become a lot more comfortable with your surroundings and the people you work with, the series and everything you’re in,” Power said. “You just become more relaxed naturally because it becomes more common to you. That’s what’s happened with me. I think that would happen to anyone in any job, you just become more comfortable.”
Every season there is only one champion and last year it went to a driver from the United States for the first time since Sam Hornish, Jr. in 2006. Hunter-Reay has had a long offseason to enjoy his accomplishment and will carry the traditional car No. 1 this season.
“The best thing about winning a championship, this is what I’ve been working for my entire life, it’s a dream come true,” Hunter-Reay said. “Nobody can ever take that away from me now, from us, from our team. It’s something that we accomplished. We earned it, straight up earned it. Nobody can ever take that away. That’s a beautiful thing. We were IndyCar champions.
“We’re starting new now. We’re the defending champions. And that does absolutely nothing for us when the green flag flies in St. Pete. We’re starting all over again. We have to go out there and live up to the No. 1 on the side of the car. That’s where the pressure comes from, is living up to that No. 1.”
That was last year and beginning at St. Petersburg it’s a new championship battle. Expect Hunter-Reay to remain a threat along with Power, Castroneves, Franchitti and Dixon. And look for second-year driver Simon Pagenaud to have a breakout season after finishing fifth in points as a rookie in 2012.
Hunter-Reay takes a quiet confidence into the season-opener and realizes it’s time to get back to racing.
“I know if we execute and put a decent car on the racetrack, we’ll be competitive, competing for race wins,” Hunter-Reay said. “Putting the package together is the tough part. That’s what we have to focus on. We know how to do it from last year. We know where we need to be a lot better. Hopefully if we do that we improve in the areas we need to, then we can make a serious run for this championship.
“I know one thing — it’s going to be interesting. The past four seasons now it’s come down to the last race, and it certainly will this year, I guarantee it.”
And that is what makes the IZOD IndyCar Series the best racing series on the planet as the series championship is almost always in doubt until the last turn of the last lap of the last race of the season. But in order to get there the champion has to make it through the first turn of the first lap of the first race of the season on the streets of St. Petersburg.