Print and Go Back ESPN.com: IRL [Print without images]

Thursday, March 31, 2005
Road rust doesn't deter excited IRL field

By John Oreovicz
Special to ESPN.com

One could argue that this weekend's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (ESPN, Sunday, 3:30 ET) is the most eagerly anticipated event in the 10-year history of the Indy Racing League.

Study the pre-race quote sheets that the IndyCar teams' PR people put out before this race, and you'll repeatedly find drivers using words like "fabulous," "excited" and "great for the IRL."

Why are the IndyCar Series drivers so revved up?

Because for the first time in the IndyCar Series' history, they'll be racing on something other than an oval. And to the league's credit, it picked a good place to branch out: the 1.8-mile St. Petersburg street course has a variety of slow and fast left- and right-handers mixed among its 14 turns, culminating in a long and wide main straight that normally serves as a runway at Albert Whitted Airport.

Since more than 90 percent of the IndyCar Series field was groomed in road racing, it's no surprise drivers are eager to turn right again after a steady diet of ovals. Series ironman Scott Sharp made his mark by winning the Trans-Am road racing championship before moving into CART open-wheelers in 1994 -- when he ran his last road race in an open-wheel car.

"I've had a lot of success on road courses in the past but it's been about 10 years since I've run them so I'm going to have to get with the program pretty quick," Sharp said. "This weekend is going to be fun. It's certainly new territory for everyone, and that will even the field a lot."

Not every example is as extreme as that of Sharp. But with the exception of the occasional sports-car outings, most of the IndyCar field hasn't road raced since 2002. And despite several days of testing to prepare the teams and drivers (including as recently as this Tuesday at Sebring International Raceway for about half the field), that lack of recent experience is likely to show in one form or another at St. Pete.

"I'm a bit nervous about competing on road courses as I haven't run one in about six years," said two-time IndyCar Series champion Sam Hornish Jr., whose last road-racing start came in Toyota Atlantic competition in 1999. "Going into St. Petersburg leading the points standings provides a lot of comfort, but I want to try to stay patient and my first priority is to finish the race. If I'm consistent and smart, I'll be fine."

At the other end of the spectrum, Andretti Green Racing's quartet of drivers is raring to go. Engineer Peter Gibbons has spent the better part of the last year focused on the IndyCar Series' three 2005 road races and drivers Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan, Dan Wheldon and Bryan Herta have been all but conceded the role of pace-setters before a wheel has even been turned.

Plus, aside from being Honda's flagship team at a Honda-sponsored race, the event has been organized by Andretti Green Promotions.

"I've been looking forward to our first street-circuit event for a long time," said Franchitti.

"It's going to be a big race for everyone at Andretti Green Racing," added Englishman Wheldon, who has laid down his American roots with a home in St. Petersburg. "Everybody has been putting a lot of work into the event, so it's important that we do well. I think it adds a little bit of pressure."

Helio Castroneves' last road race in an open-wheel car came in 2001, but he thinks it won't be hard to get back into the swing of things.

"I believe a lot of people have had minor problems with the cars but the package seems to suit everyone pretty comfortably," Castroneves said. "There's more action for the drivers, trying to pass drivers going close to the walls, downshifting, upshifting and braking. You have to drive around 90 percent, because if you go 100 percent you're going to end up hitting the wall very soon. So it's one of those things that you have to manage well. I'm super excited."

The St. Pete street course will be new to the majority of the field; Patrick Carpentier and Darren Manning were in the February 2003 Champ Car race that served as the proving ground for the temporary course, while Danica Patrick competed in the Toyota Atlantic supporting race.

"The track's got a little bit of everything, including a nice long and wide straight," Manning said. "There are several little areas that will open up for passing."

"The challenge for me is to get used to running a car this big on a street course," said Patrick, who runs out of the three-car Rahal Letterman Racing stable. "The Atlantic car was 1,200-pounds and 240 horsepower and the IndyCars are 1,600-pounds and 650 horsepower and that makes a significant difference in how the cars react."

Patrick won't be the only young driver under scrutiny. Marco Andretti, the 18-year-old son of Michael, will make his Menard's Infiniti Pro Series debut in the support race at St. Petersburg.

Another interesting facet to watch for is the trial run for the IndyCar Series' road-course qualifying format, which will pit the fastest six drivers from single-lap qualifying in a 10-minute "supersession" to determine the final starting order.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.