Helio Castroneves, the two-time defending winner of the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, staked an early claim at becoming a three-time winner. The Team Penske driver topped 2 ½ hours of IndyCar Series practice on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary street circuit with a fastest lap of 1 minute, 3.3068 seconds, 102.359 mph.
Andretti Green Racing teammates Tony Kanaan, a three-time podium finisher at St. Petersburg, and Hideki Mutoh were second and third-fastest. Newcomers Justin Wilson and Will Power were fourth and fifth-fastest, respectively.
Kanaan missed 30 minutes of practice in the morning session serving a penalty for failure to follow the directions of Race Control during the final restart of the March 29 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“The Team Penske car was handling well and we were able to put together a good lap this afternoon,” Castroneves said. “Even though there were a lot of cars out there, I was able to get a very clean run. I’m happy with where we are after the first day, but I know that tomorrow will be even faster.”
IndyCar Series drivers will have an additional 30 minutes of practice time Saturday morning before competing for the PEAK Motor Oil Pole Award in a new format that features three sessions that progressively narrow the field to the six fastest cars for the Firestone Fast Six Shootout.
Also on April 4, Raphael Matos led preparations for the Firestone Indy Lights St. Pete 100. Matos, who swept the doubleheader races in 2006, lapped the circuit in 1 minute, 7.4950 seconds, 96.007 mph.
J.R. Hildebrand, Richard Antinucci, Jeff Simmons and Dillon Battistini rounded out the top five. Race 1 of the doubleheader is Saturday afternoon.
*** Groups for today’s IndyCar Series practice session will be determined by a random draw. Brian Barnhart, president of competition and operations, will draw chips out of two bags. One chip will contain a car number while the other chip will be either red or blue, determining whether the selected car is in Group 1 or Group 2.
The randomly assigned groups will take effect for Saturday morning’s practice session as well as Segment One of the new qualifying procedure that will be introduced this weekend. In Segment One, the fastest six cars from each group will advance to Segment Two. After Segment Two, the fastest six cars will advance to the Firestone Fast Six Shootout in an attempt to win the PEAK Motor Oil Pole Award.
*** For three Firestone Indy Lights teams, the doubleheader weekend at St. Petersburg is more than the only street course race on the 2008 schedule.
American Spirit Racing, Team E and RLR/Andersen Racing call the west coast of Florida home, so it's a chance to shine in front of their friends and family.
American Spirit Racing is owned by Jon Lewis, a resident of Cape Coral, Fla. The team's driver, Swiss rookie Cyndie Allemann, also resides in Cape Coral.
Team E is based in Odessa, Fla. Team owner Neil Enerson is the president of Marlin Gas Transport, a provider of compressed natural gas transportation services located in New Port Richey, Fla. The team's driver Bobby Wilson is a resident of Ocala, Fla.
RLR/Andersen Racing is based in Palmetto, Fla., and many of its team members live in the area. The team fields the Best Friends Animal Society No. 5 driven by Andrew Prendeville and the Allied Interior Products No. 25 driven by J.R. Hildebrand, who used to live in the area before relocating to Indianapolis last year.
Among the RLR/Andersen Racing crew memebers who live in St. Pete are: * Dominic Cape, chief engineer, lives in St. Petersburg; * Nicholas Cape, engineer and assistant manager (and Dominic's brother), also lives in St. Pete; * Jake Ware, the team's data acquisition specialist, lives in Bradenton; * William Paul, the chief mechanic on the No. 5, lives in Bradenton; * Francisco Navarro, second mechanic on the No. 25, lives in St. Pete; * Brandon Deagle, transporter driver, also lives in St. Pete; * Michelle Kish, Andersen Racing's overall team manager, lives in Palmetto, Fla. *** Robbie Pecorari, who is racing in the Firestone Indy Lights St. Pete 100 doubleheader for Michael Crawford Motorsports, is pulling double-duty this weekend. Pecorari is also competing in the Acura Sportscar Challenge for van der Steuer Racing, meaning he will race in three of the four races scheduled this weekend, including both Saturday races.
ROBBIE PECORARI (No. 6 Michael Crawford Motorsports): "It’s going to be interesting and a lot of back and forth (between paddocks). It's really my first time to drive a LMP2 car, but my main goal is the Firestone Indy Lights races. If we could get a podium or even a win, that would be great. We had some great results here last year and on the other road courses, so I'm looking forward to the weekend." (About the rest of the year): "It's always been the goal to put something together for the whole season, especially after the season we had last year. I would love to be in the series for the full year, but the focus is getting a good result here."
Townsend Bell returns to IndyCar Series competition this weekend, driving the No. 23 Dreyer & Reinbold Racing entry with sponsorship from William Rast.
Bell and William Rast CEO Colin Dyne are friends. The company was founded by recording artist Justin Timberlake and his best friend, Trace Ayala. William is the given name of Timberlake’s grandfather and Rast is the surname of Ayala’s grandfather.
Bell will compete in eight races in the No. 23 car prepared by Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, complementing the events in which Milka Duno will be behind the wheel.
TOWNSEND BELL (No. 23 Dreyer and Reinbold William Rast): “I’m really excited to be back on a street circuit. It will be tough; I’ve only had one test day at Sebring and still have probably several more days on track before I feel like I’m on top of things. We know we have a great baseline package and I have a great teammate in Buddy Rice. Based on the testing we’ve done, everything is pointing in the right direction.
“(Team co-owners Dennis Reinbold and Robbie Buhl) and I have talked the last few years about working together and it all worked out this year. It’s a great way for this year to work myself back into the championship and hopefully run full time next year. It’s kind of a perfect transition from doing nothing to working toward a full-time opportunity.”
MITCH SEBOLSKY (Director of marketing, William Rast): “A lot of companies, such as apparel brands, are growing in categories. From where we started as a premium denim brand (in November 2005), now we’re going into a lifestyle brand. Our core demographic is 18-42 (year old) men and women; we skew a little higher on the women’s side. With IRL and their consumer base, they’re out there, their shopping and buying premium clothes and looking really good. With the market such as (St. Pete), Indianapolis, Japan is an upcoming strong market for us, Sonoma, it’s just a good fit where our major accounts are and where our consumers are.” *** The Michael Andretti Foundation will host its second annual gala event tonight to benefit three children’s charities in St. Petersburg – the Mayor’s Mentors & More scholarship program, All Children’s Hospital Pediatric Trauma Center and Bayfront Baby Place. The gala will be held in the atrium lobby of the Mahaffey Theater at the Progress Energy Center for the Arts. Tickets are $150 each, and include hors d’oeuvres, an open bar, a one-of-a-kind silent auction, and appearances by celebrity drivers. Among those expected to attend the event are Andretti Green Racing’s IndyCar Series drivers Danica Patrick, Marco Andretti, Tony Kanaan and Hideki Mutoh.
A highlight of the evening is the silent auction. Items offered to the highest bidder include a custom Peter Max portrait done at his New York Studio, a trip to the Andretti winery, autographed racing memorabilia, weekend vacation packages including luxury car rentals, autographed Patrick Dempsey scrubs, jewelry, furniture, tickets to local entertainment events, artwork, restaurant gift certificates and more.
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: “Since its inception in 2003, the Michael Andretti Foundation has donated more than $500,000 to various charities. It is important to all of us that we find a way to give back to the great community of St. Petersburg – and its biggest hope for the future, its children. ***
Michigan native Gail Truess debuts as the driver of the Command One safety vehicle today. Truess will be the full-time driver of the Honda Pilot on all road and street courses in 2008, freeing a member of the Delphi Safety Team to perform other duties.
Truess was a member of the PPG CART Pace Car Team for 17 years, serving first as a driver for VIP and media pace car rides before assuming the role of Safety Car driver during races. She began her professional driving career in 1985 in PRO Rally.
GAIL TRUESS (Driver, Command One safety vehicle): “When I was with the rally team, we were sponsored by Oldsmobile. Back then a different manufacturer each year would build the pace car. Because of our association with Oldsmobile, it was the Olds Calais that was going to be built, so our company was contracted to do a portion of the build. So I traveled to the racetrack with the pace car during its development, and I saw this team of women that was the pace car team. And I said, ‘Aha.’ I had just started racing myself, but I said, ‘That’s something that I’d like to do.’ Years later, after I got my own racing experience is how I started to get into open-wheel racing and the pace cars.
“I did the majority of the events from ’93 on. There was anywhere from 14 women on the team when I began. Back into the later years we were down to five. It was a double program. When I started off, Johnny Rutherford was our pace car driver. We just did a fast lap ride program, so he paced the race. Later, Johnny moved to the IndyCar Series and we moved into the driver’s seat to pace the Champ Car races.”
DAVE BROWN (Track Safety Coordinator, Indy Racing League): “Gail has a lot of experience driving on a racetrack in competition. On an oval, it’s not a big deal (for the doctor to drive). You’ve got good visibility, you’ve only got four turns. But, on a road course, anywhere from 12, 15, 16 turns, the doctor really doesn’t have time to concentrate on driving. He needs to be paying attention to what happened. What we do in the command truck, we record from the live TV feed that we’ve got, so that he can review what’s going on at the scene and know what he’s got before he ever gets there. That means that he can’t take the time to be driving. He needs to be paying attention to what’s going on.”
*** St. Petersburg resident Dan Wheldon will host a post-race party at Push Ultra Lounge in Downtown St. Petersburg following Sunday’s race. The event will run from 8 p.m. – 2 a.m. and will include DJs on all three floors.
DAN WHELDON (No. 10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing): “Since our first season racing in St. Pete, I've been wanting to throw a party in my hometown for drivers, teams, owners, sponsors and racing fans. Usually after the Grand Prix, a small group of us would duck into a place for a bite to eat and that was it. But it wasn't until I met Seth Hill at Push Ultra Lounge that my desire to throw a big party became a reality. Push is the hottest place in St. Pete right now. They've got three levels, including a VIP rooftop, they're flying in big-time DJ's, and all of St. Pete is going to be there. Everyone is welcome."
IndyCar Series and Firestone Indy Lights forge promotional partnership with Raybestos Brand Brakes: Indy Racing League officials today announced a two-year promotional partnership with the Affinia Under Vehicle Group, manufacturers of Raybestos brand brakes. The partnership designates Raybestos as the preferred competition brake friction of the IndyCar Series and Firestone Indy Lights at all road and street course races through 2009. The announcement renews a relationship between Raybestos brand brakes and IndyCar racing that dates back decades.
As part of the partnership, Raybestos will become the preferred brake friction run by every IndyCar Series and Firestone Indy Lights team for every road and street course race on the schedule. The Raybestos Road and Street Course Challenge will award a cash payout to all street or road course race winners throughout the season provided he or she used Raybestos brakes. The payout will be $5,000 per race in the IndyCar Series and $2,500 per race in Firestone Indy Lights. In addition to these individual race incentives, Raybestos brand brakes will award $25,000 to the IndyCar Series driver who achieves the best average finishing position across all 2008 road/street course events. The season-long Firestone Indy Lights award is $10,000.
In addition to its support of the series and its teams with ongoing technical assistance and development, there are plans to showcase the new IndyCar Series relationship, competition imagery, and the league’s premiere drivers in Raybestos® brand advertising, consumer promotions, and point-of-sale marketing materials.
TERRY ANGSTADT (President, Commercial Division, Indy Racing League): “The IndyCar Series is always looking to associate itself with respected brands that have earned the trust of the American consumer. Raybestos is one of those brands. Not only are they a great fit to help us promote the IndyCar Series and Firestone Indy Lights, but we’ll also be able to count on quality brakes for our race cars to help maintain our high safety standards.”
JOSH RUSSELL (Vice President of Marketing, Affinia Under Vehicle Group): “We are thrilled to announce the return of Raybestos brakes to the highest levels of competition in open wheel racing. Raybestos has an extraordinary legacy in motorsports, and a history of continuous technical development of its products through firsthand experience on both proving grounds and the world’s most demanding racetracks. “It will be exciting to have Raybestos once again exceeding the braking needs of the world’s most demanding open wheel teams and drivers,” Russell continued.
*** INDYCAR SERIES POST-PRACTICE QUOTES:
HELIO CASTRONEVES (No. 3 Team Penske, fastest): “The Team Penske car was handling well and we were able to put together a good lap this afternoon. Even though there were a lot of cars out there, I was able to get a very clean run. I’m happy with where we are after the first day, but I know that tomorrow will be even faster.” (About new qualifying format): “Qualifying last year was a lot of fun, but the change in format this year will give us a new challenge. It's hard to predict how things will go because we haven’t done it yet. But it will be new for everyone, which levels the playing field, and hopefully things will go smoothly tomorrow.”
TONY KANAAN (No. 11 Team 7-Eleven, second fastest): “On paper it looks good. We’ll see after tomorrow what we think about it. It’s going to be interesting to see how the draw comes out. Maybe we’re going to see a group of very strong guys together in one group and maybe another not so strong group. Or maybe we’ll see a mix. So I don’t know what to expect, but I’m excited about it. It’s a new format, so we’ll see what’s going to happen. Personally I love the single-lap qualifying, but I’ll give it a try tomorrow. I’m pretty sure if some of us make it all the way to the end, you’re going to see some drivers with their arms falling off because pushing it for an hour, qualifying every time you go out, it’s going to be tough.”
HIDEKI MUTOH (No. 27 Formula Dream, third fastest): “I am a bit disappointed with how the second session ended, but until then I was doing well and the car felt very good. We were going to try one more set of tires at the end but we ran out of time. All in all we finished third fastest so I am pretty happy. I am not sure about the weather tomorrow but I am looking forward to the qualifying session.”
JUSTIN WILSON (No. 02 McDonald’s Racing Team, fourth fastest): “This morning was good. The car felt pretty good straight out of the trailer. The team has worked pretty hard for the past five weeks now, and this is the first chance we’ve really had to try it on a road course. And so far, so good. I think we’re in reasonable shape. You never like to get too carried away but so far I feel like my McDonald’s car is quick and now it’s time to work on the race setup.”
WILL POWER (No. 8 Aussie Vineyard-Team Australia, fifth fastest): “This was a much better practice session for KVRT Aussie Vineyards – Team Australia. The car earlier was really out of the window, but we worked out a couple of things. The team made the adjustments we needed to make and now it is much better to drive, much more for my style, so I am looking forward to tomorrow’s qualifying. Hopefully, we can make a couple more improvements and we will see how we go.” *** Cyndie Allemann is wearing a brace on her right wrist when she is not racing due to tendonitis. Allemann aggravated the injury during the Open Test at Sebring International Raceway. Though the injury is not severe enough to keep her from racing, she said it does fatigue her more quickly. *** FIRESTONE INDY LIGHTS POST-PRACTICE QUOTES:
RAPHAEL MATOS (No. 27 Automatic Fire Sprinklers, Inc., fastest): “The day went pretty smooth. We were able to be the quickest in both sessions. In the first session, it was very slippery. I definitely thought the performance of the car was better in the second session when we had more grip in the track. We were able to try different aero configurations and setups for qualifying. The AFS/Andretti Green team did a great job. I think we’ll have a strong car for qualifying and the race tomorrow.” (About street course racing): “The last two years I raced in a series with a lot of street courses. I had to learn how to adapt quickly. You have to take your time and remember there’s walls around you. You can’t make a mistake. You can’t drive 100 percent, but you may drive 95 percent. You just need to get a car that is comfortable for you so that you can go fast.”
J.R. HILDEBRAND (No. 25 RLR/Andersen Racing, second fastest): “Like Raphael, I raced in (Champ Car) Atlantics, so I have some general road course experience. It’s my first time here, and it’s a little different from what I’m used to. It’s a good showing for us and a good showing for the team. I’m really proud of the guys. We’ve come out the gates really strong, and there’s no reason that we can’t keep getting better.” (About the hometown race for the team): “It’s a big race for the guys on the team since they are so close to home. Half the team is sleeping in their own beds and just going home at night. We have a lot of people here and a lot of people are here from Allied, one the biggest sponsors for the team. It would be great to have a great showing here for all of them.”
SATURDAY’S SCHEDULE (all times local): 6:30 a.m. Garages open 8:05-9:05 a.m. IndyCar Series practice (two groups) 10:05-10:35 a.m. Firestone Indy Lights SWE Pole Qualifying 10:55 a.m. – 12:25 p.m. PEAK Motor Oil Pole Qualifying 4:15 p.m. St. Pete 100 Race 1 pre-race 4:45 p.m. St. Pete 100 Race 1 (40 laps/72 miles)
*** The 2008 IndyCar Series season continues with the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on April 6 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla. The race will be telecast in High Definition live at 2:30 p.m. (EDT) by ESPN and broadcast by the IMS Radio Network. A Spanish-language telecast of the race will be carried by ESPNDeportes. The IMS Radio Network broadcast also is carried on XM Satellite Radio and indycar.com. The 2008 Firestone Indy Lights season continues April 5-6 with a doubleheader weekend at St. Petersburg. The race will be telecast at 2 p.m. (EDT) on April 10 by ESPN2.