Indycar Works in Qualifying Amid Big News Days

Good morning from the northern annex of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg media center. I hope that those of you at the track are following COVIS protocols and are staying safe.

Today’s schedule, all times Eastern:

Practice- 10:55-12:25 NBC Gold

Qualifying 3:05-4:20 NBC Gold

8:00-9:00 (tape delay) NBCSN

I will have a spoiler alert report after qualifying. The pole winner will not be in the headline.

There were several bits of news yesterday, and I understand some more news is coming around 2 pm today.

Firestone has extended its sponsorship agreement for this race through 2023. Should St. Pete remain as the opening race of the season, this venue will be our first look at the new 2.4 liter engine with a hybrid system. the news is also encouraging in that a company in these uncertain times is willing to make a commitment for that length of time.

Last night Team Penske made it official that three time VA Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin will drivea fourth entry for the team in the NTT Indycar Series in 2021. McLaughlin makes his Indycar debut this weekend. A link to the announcement can be found here:

https://thepitwindow.blog/2020/10/23/team-penske-adds-mclaughlin-to-indycar-for-2021/

Scott McLaughlin addresses the media in Austin in February

Per Adam Stern, Chip Ganassi Racing has secured sponsorship for Jimmie Johnson to the road and street courses in 2021. An announcement is expected soon. This may be the 2 pm announcement,scheduled for today.

Last, best wishes for a speedy recovery to my friend Jake Query, who is recovering from a heart attack, and resting comfortably in Indianapolis.

Back after practice

St.Pete Preview- The End of a Long and Winding Road

I really didn’t think this race would happen this year. Rescheduling a street race is a monumental task, and few cities would want to go through the inconvenience a second time in the same year. If the 2021 schedule holds, the NTT Indycar Series will return to St. Pete in a little more than four months. Kudos to everyone who made this event happen, but a special hat tip to the city of St. Petersburg, who had to bear the brunt of this uncertainty.

Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will be the 15th edition of an Indycar race on the streets of the central Florida city. The first race was won by Paul Tracy in 2003. After a year’s absence, racing returned in 2005 and has continued uninterrupted since then.

This year’s race is scheduled for 100 laps, down from the 110 laps of the past few years, on the 1.8 mile, 14 turn course. 2020 is the first year St. Pete has hosted the finale. it is usually the season opener. In the span about four months, it will be the finale of one season and the opening race of the next year.

Although the title hunt is a two man race, and Scott Dixon is in a very good position to win his sixth title, there are several other things to look for this weekend. There is still a battle for the final Leaders’ Circle spot. Some drivers are hoping for a good showing to help secure a seat for 2021. Scott McLaughlin is making his Indycar debut, while a couple other drivers may not return to the series next season.

Championship on the Line

Scott Dixon heads into the weekend with a 32 point lead over Josef Newgarden. Dixon’s lead, which at one point had swelled to 117 points, has had what for him is a slump with four finishes in the bottom half of the top ten. Newgarden, meanwhile has steadily sliced the lead with two wins in the last four races.

Dixon needs to finish ninth or better to clinch the Astor Cup regardless of how Newgarden fares. Newgarden will need some help from Dixon to have a chance of winning his third title. I don’t see Dixon losing the crown.

Debuts and Auditions

Australian Supercars champ[ion Scott McLaughlin makes his long anticipated Indycar debut for Team Penske in car number 3. McLaughlin’s firast Indycar race had been set for the GMR Grand Prix in May. He participated in the Spring Training test in Austin and was third fastest. Mclaughlin will be a full time driver for Penske in 2021. It will be strange seeing someone besides Helio Castroneves in the number 3.

James Hinchcliffe, who is finishing the season for Andretti Autosport in car 26, which was vacated by Zach Veach, still has nothing set for next season. Coming off of 13th and 14th place finishes in the Harvest Grand Prixs, Hinchcliffe could use a good showing to insure he has a place on the grid next year.

Oliver Askew has been cleared to drive after undergoing concussion protocols. This is Askew’s last drive for Arrow McLaren SP. Askew will look to have a good weekend as he seeks a new ride for 2021. Felix rosenqvist will take Askew’s  seat at AMSP  next season.

Charlie Kimball is not confirmed for another year for A. J. Foyt’s number4 seat. He needs a strong showing to stay in contention for the ride.

The Battle for 22nd

Four cars will be jockeying to finish the season entrant points stand ing in 22nd, the final leader’s Circle spot. Entering St. Pete, Foyt’s number 14 car is in the final slot with 173 points. The 98 is 23rd with 166. The addition of Sebastien Bourdais to the 14 should help Foyt stay within the Circle. The 20 car of Ed Carpenter Racing is 21st with 179 points. One of these three cars will end up on the outside looking in for the $1 million plus payout from Indycar.

The race broadcast is on NBC beginning at 2:30 Eastern time Sunday. The green flag is at 2:32. Cars will be rolling when the broadcast begins and there will be no pre race show. The television window goes to 4:30, which may mean a very brief post race interview with the race winner and series champion.

My picks- Will Power to win the pole and the race. Scott Dixon will take his sixth  series championship.

Look for session reports tomorrow and a race wrap up Sunday evening.

 

Dixon, Newgarden Have the Same Weekend Plan- Keep it Simple

Scott Dixon and Josef Newgarden have a similar approach to the NTT Indycar Series finale at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg- keep things simple and win the race. Dixon, who leads Newgarden by 32 points, needs to finish ninth or better Sunday to put the title out of Newgarden’s reach.

Dixon stated his objective, “Obviously the goal is to go for a win. That makes it a lot easier, then you don’t have to worry about any of the scenarios. …we try to typically keep it pretty simple. I would say that was not the case for the last few races, which got us into a bit of a tailspin. Josef and Team Penske, him and his teammates, have been doing a fantastic job.”

Dixon admits his spin at Mid Ohio put him in this situation and made the championship more difficult to wrap up early.

For Newgarden, models showing that he has just a 1% chance of winning the title is fine with him.

“I love on the fact sheet, I saw this put out, it was like 20,000 scenarios, 1% of the scenarios means we can win the championship. You’re saying there’s a chance and that’s all we need.”

Dixon is not sure about the effect the aeroscreen will have as the series races what will be its only street cdpourse race of the season.

“I don’t know. I don’t know what to tell you. It’s the first time for it. It’s done a great job first season, the conditions we’ve had in different situations. We didn’t get the full rain situation, which I think a lot of us expected throughout the season at some point. Maybe the depth perception maybe a little altered depending on the walls, where there’s placed. Honestly, this year it’s been very good in every situation. Touch wood that there’s no issue there.”

Newgarden is excited that fans will be able to attend the race this weekend.

“It’s been a tough year. Showing up to the racetrack in the conditions that we’ve seen this year, it’s hard. I think just from an event standpoint, you don’t have the energy of the fans and the crowd. That’s really what makes INDYCAR racing what it is. I think it makes sport what it is.”

Dixon added, “Just to touch on what Josef said about the atmosphere, I think a lot of us thrive on that. To be able to go back full circle and have fans again at St. Pete I think is going to be really cool.

But, yeah, just the effort that’s gone in to make a season and have a season where a lot of people haven’t had that opportunity. A lot of categories in motor racing, but other sports have really struggled. A lot of people that have gone into it, partners, quite involved. We’re very fortunate and very lucky. Glad we’re able to carry on.”

Both drivers expressed appreciation to Indycar and Green Savoree for working out a date to have this race.

Dixon and Newgarden plan to change their approach this weekend like any other race weekend. Newgarden said changing your approach can get you into trouble.

On the prospect of racing with Australian VA Supercar champion Scott McLaughlin, both drivers expressed excitement.Newgarden, who will be McLaughlin’s teammate, acknowledged this will be a challenge for him this weekend, but added,

“It’s going to be really fascinating to see how he handles this challenge. This is going to be an enormous task for Scott. He’s really, really good. We already know that. You could see that a mile away. I think we all admire his strengths around the Super Car side. I think he’s a great racer overall, doesn’t matter what car you put him in.”

Dixon is excited to have a fellow countryman in the series.

“Yeah, he’s damn good. I’m super excited for him. I met him maybe four or five years ago. We had to do an appearance at some event in Auckland city, do autograph sessions. Had to sit around for a long time and chat. This is before he had gone to Team Penske.

Yeah, he’s been crushing it obviously down there with his pole record, championship situation. Then for him to have this opportunity, I know he loves America, always wanted to come to America. I think it’s really cool to have another Kiwi in the field, which didn’t really even seem to be on the radar for quite a few years.”

Dixon is disappointed about the lack of ovals on the 2021 schedule and hopes more will return in the future.

“I’m bummed there’s only three ovals. I started in this category in 2003. It was 16 ovals in the series. We definitely need to work hard and trying to get back to that. I was extremely bummed about Iowa. It’s not a place I’ve won at, but it’s a track that is complete chaos, very difficult to set the car up. It’s exhausting physically. It provides some of our best racing we have all season. Hopefully that can be rectified down the road.”

Dixon and Newgarden think the race will come down to the tires, which are an unknown factor going in. They tested the street tire at Sebring, which doesn’t give a true indication of its wear. Dixon thinks three stops might be needed during the race.

St. Pete Entry List- McLaughlin Debuts, Askew Returns

Scott McLaughlin, Australian VA Supercar champion, makes his Indycar debut this weekend in the number 3 Chevy powered entry. McLaughlin finished 5th in last Sunday’s Bathurst 1000.

Oliver Askew returns to Arrow McLaren SP for his final drive in the 7 car. Askew missed the Harvest Grand Prix while undergoing treatment for concussion symptoms.

St. Pete Ticket Update- Friday Sold Out, Still Some Room Saturday and Sunday

A look this morning at the ticket situation for St. Pete, according to their website, shows that tickets for Friday are sold out. General admission tickets for Saturday and Sunday are available, for individual days or a two day ticket. The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is not selling any more grandstand reserved seats.

The event has a 20,00 fan limit per day. Ticket prices – $60 for a 2 day ticket to $40 for Saturday only, and $55 for Sunday only. There is a $10 service charge.

An email sent to ticket holders yesterday asks fans to complete a self assessment of their health before coming to the track. Only the Road to Indy and Mazda MX-5 Cup paddocks are open to spectators. Seems odd that any paddocks are open.

Masks are required to be worn at all times at the track. Expect a temperature check upon entry.

From the email regarding viewing areas:

  • Social distancing must be maintained between individuals/family/household groups.
  • No more than 10 people together.
  • Please respect posted directional signage, as well as specific entry and exit for pedestrian roads and pathways.
  • The Budweiser Party Pit will be closed
  • The Waterside Club will be closed

As other tracks have done this year, St. Pete is taking the usual precautions. I think a street race venue will be quite a challenge to monitor.

Since this race is the 2020 finale and the 2021 opening event for the NTT Indycar Series, I’m sure they will want to have a smooth weekend. We can hope that things will improve somewhat by next March.

St. Pete Track Busy with Series Finales- On Track Schedules

The postponed Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg not hosts the NTT Indycar Series finale, the Road to Indy season ending races also take place this weekend. Mazda MX-5 Cup and Porsche GT3 Cup action is also on the agenda. Indycar does not get on track until Saturday morning at 10:55 am for a 90 minute practice. Friday is dedicated to practice and qualifying for USF 2000, Indy Pro 2000, Mazda mx-5 Cup, and Porsche GT3 Cup. each of the support series will have two races. Both Mazda races are Saturday. The second races for the other three series are on Sunday before the Indycar finale. The schedule by day (all times Eastern):

Friday

TimeSeriesSession
8:45 AM – 4:00 PM Gate Hours
9:00 AM – 9:40 AMMX-5 CupPractice 1
10:00 AM – 10:45 AMPorsche GT3 CupPractice 1
11:05 AM – 11:35 AMUSF2000Practice 1
11:55 AM – 12:25 PMIndy Pro 2000Practice 1
12:45 PM – 1:25 PMMX-5 CupPractice 2
1:45 PM – 2:15 PMPorsche GT3 CupPractice 2
2:35 PM – 3:05 PMUSF2000Qualifying 1
3:25 PM – 3:55 PMIndy Pro 2000Qualifying 1
4:15 PM – 4:35 PMMX-5 CupQualifying
4:55 PM – 5:10 PMPorsche GT3 CupQualifying

Saturday

TimeSeriesSession
8:15 AM – 5:45 PM Gate Hours
8:30 AM – 9:15 AMMX-5 CupRace 1
9:30 AM – 9:50 AMUSF2000Qualifying 2
10:10 AM – 10:30 AMIndy Pro 2000Qualifying 2
10:55 AM – 12:25 PMNTT INDYCAR SERIESPractice
12:50 PM – 1:35 PMMX-5 CupRace 2
1:55 PM – 2:40 PMPorsche GT3 CupRace 1
3:05 PM – 4:20 PMNTT INDYCAR SERIESQualifying
4:40 PM – 5:25 PMUSF2000Race 1
5:35 PM – 6:15 PMIndy Pro 2000Race 1

Sunday

TimeSeriesSession
9:15 AM – 3:00 PM Gate Hours
9:30 AM – 10:15 AMUSF2000Race 2
10:40 AM – 11:10 AMNTT INDYCAR SERIESWarm-Up
11:30 AM – 12:20 PMIndy Pro 2000Race 2
12:40 PM – 1:25 PMPorsche GT3 CupRace 2
2:30 PMNTT INDYCAR SERIESRace

St. Pete Broadcast Schedule; Selling Limted Number of Tickets

The broadcast schedule for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is out. Notable is the delayed television broadcast of qualifying. Qualifying will be shown live on NBC Gold for those who have purchased it. This qualifying sesion will be just the second traditional knock out qualifying leading the Fast Six this year. I have missed the Fast Six format, although I have enjoyed the way the grid is set for the double headers. The broadcast schedule:

Oct24 Saturday Practice 10:55 AM – 12:25 PM ET

Oct24 Saturday Qualifications (Live) 3:05 – 4:20 PM ET

Oct24 Saturday Qualifications (Delay) 8:00 – 9:00 PM ET

Oct25 Sunday Warmup 10:40 – 11:10 AM ET

Oct25 Sunday Pre-Race 2:00 – 2:30 PM ET

Oct25 Sunday Race 2:30 – 4:30 PM ET

Yesterday afternoon, Green Savoree, the race promoter, put a limited number of tickets on sale. the event has a 20,000 fan limit per day. Ticket holders who had seats for the original March date received an email yesterday with a reassigned seat. In my case, I am in the same grandstand, same section, but just four rows lower than my regular location. I even retained the same seat number.

Whenj the March race was cancelled the promoters gave ticketholders the opportunity to get a credit for the 2021 race. i know several fans who took advantage of that offer. Some were unhappy because there was no cash refund option. I’m disappointed that Green Savoree did not extend a similar deferral until 2021 option to those who kept their tickets, but who cannot for one reason or another go to this race. I have chosen not to attend because of the pandemic. I know of another fan, who I believe has been to every St. Pete race, also in this situation.

I understand this promoter has been hit the hardest by the schedule upheaval this year. They have lost two races entirely, Toronto and Portland, were allowed just 6,000 fans per day at Mid Ohio, and were in danger of losing this event completely as well. It is a sham that the good will of the fans takes a backseat to their bottom line.

Early Racing in St. Pete Laid Groundwork for Indycar

Before the first Indycar race in St. Petersburg, a CART race in 2003 won by Paul Tracy, sports cars raced through the streets in the mid 1980s and had a brief revival in the 90s. The early tracks did not use the Albert Whitted Airport runway and ran further uptown. The course we know today still has parts of the former tracks in it.

In 1985, St. Petersburg sought a way to gain more exposure and attract tourism. A street race was proposed. The nine turn course ran along the waterfront, returning to the finish line via Bay Shore Drive. Turn 6 looks interesting, if not downright scary. SCCA Trans Am and Can Am cars participated.

Willy T. Ribbs won the inaugural Trans Am race, and Dr. Lou Sell won the Can Am race

For 1986 the course was revised. Businesses along the pier were not happy that they were cut off during the time of the race. This configuration continued through 1990, when the race stopped after losing its sponsor. The 180 degree turn is gone. The track went to the Vinoy hotel and then to Bay Shore Drive. This track has 10 turns and a more straightforward route.

Pete Halsmer and Scott Pruett were two winners with an Indycar connection in this era. In 1987 Johnny O’Connell won in Formula Atlantics. I can’t imagine what a young O’Connell looked like. Tragedy struck in 1987 when Jim Fitzgerald suffered fatal injuries after hitting the concrete barriers in turn 1. Firtzgerald had been a mentor to Paul Newman as Newman began his racing career.

In 1996 and 1997, a race sponsored by Kash n Karry ran on a course around Tropicana Field. The sponsor pulled out before the 1998 race and racing was done in St. Pete until CART returned in 2003.

The new track is basically the same layout we are familiar with today, 14 turns with the wide runway as the front stretch. The curbing in turns 2 and 10 stays down all year long.

There was no race in 2004 as the promoters were uncertain of the viability of CART. In 2005 the IRL began racing and has continued annually since.

In 2017 a subtle change was made with a little kink between turns 2 and 3.

The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will run on October 25 this year. If it runs as scheduled March 7 in 2021, it will serve as the 2020 season finale and the 2021 season opener. The races would be held less than five months apart.