Rahal quickest in practice

FOR HONDA GRAND PRIX OF ST. PETERSBURG

Defending race winner Graham Rahal topped the time chart on the first day of practice for the 2009 IndyCar Series season opener. Rahal, 20, who became the youngest winner in major open-wheel racing history when he won the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg a year ago, seems ready to defend his title. He lapped the 14-turn, 1.8-mile circuit in 1 minute, 3.4078 seconds, 102.196 mph in the No. 02 McDonald’s Racing entry to set the pace for the 22-car field.

            Dale Coyne Racing’s Justin Wilson, who led 18 laps in last year’s race, was second with a lap at 1:03.5881, 101.906 mph. Dario Franchitti with Target Chip Ganassi Racing was third, E.J. Viso with HVM Racing was fourth and Tony Kanaan with Andretti Green Racing was fifth.

            An additional practice session is scheduled for Saturday morning before the three-round PEAK Performance Pole Qualifying session to set the starting grid for Sunday’s race.

            Also on Friday, J.R. Hildebrand won his first Firestone Indy Lights pole in qualifying for Race 1 of the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Hildebrand recorded a best lap of 1 minute, 7.7704 seconds, 95.617 mph. Junior Strouss, one of 16 rookies in the 27-car field, was second.

            Firestone Indy Lights drivers will participate in an additional qualifying session for Race 2 on Saturday morning before the 40-lap Race 1 in the afternoon. Race 2 is scheduled for Sunday.

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            Firestone Racing brings three types of tires to St. Petersburg this weekend. IndyCar Series teams have six sets of primary dry racing slicks, four sets of rain tires and three sets of alternate “red” tires.

            Firestone introduces the alternate tire concept to the IndyCar Series this weekend. The alternate tires are softer than the primary slicks, therefore providing more grip and potentially more speed, however they sacrifice durability. Teams are required to keep at least one unused “sticker” set of alternate tires to use for at least two laps of green flag racing during the race. Teams may use the other two sets of “reds” at any other point during practice or qualifying at their discretion. Teams must notify league officials whether they will start the race on traditional slicks or alternate tires within one hour of the conclusion of qualifying.

            AL SPEYER (Executive Director, Firestone Racing): “Another IndyCar Series season is here, and for the first time we get to kick it off at one of the premier events, the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Firestone Racing has been a strong supporter of this event since it debuted in 2005, and we are continuing that role as the grand prix's official tire this year. The racing at St. Pete has always been exciting and unpredictable, and it should become even more so with the introduction of our alternate tire concept to IndyCar Series road and street courses this season. Each car will have a limited supply of the red-sidewall alternate tires, which possess a softer tread compound for faster lap times. But, by design, the Firehawk 'reds' trade away some tread compound durability over the long run, so teams will need to manage their tire use wisely to maxi mize their car's performance. This added strategy variable cou ld yield even more unexpected results in both qualifying and the race. We're thrilled to see the alternate tire concept added to the competition, and we believe the IndyCar fans will enjoy it.”

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            Firestone is also bringing back it’s "Tire-ific" Move of the Race. Following each race, Firestone Racing nominates three drivers who best utilized their Firestone tires to make a bold, dramatic move during the event. It could be relying on the Firehawks' great grip to execute a daring pass, or having the confidence in the tires' durability to run an extra stint on a set to improve position. Fans can go to www.indycar.com to vote for the nominee they believe made the most "Tire-ific" move of the race. The winner is announced and the $10,000 prize awarded at the next race.

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            The IndyCar Series brings its unique road course qualifying format to St. Petersburg this weekend. After two practice session featuring all cars today, the field is randomly divided into two groups for tomorrow’s practice and Segment One of qualifying. The random draw occurred this morning prior to the driver’s meeting when the drivers drew either a red chip or a blue chip out of a bag. Drivers with a red chip will be in Group One. Drivers with a blue chip will be in Group Two.

            In Segment One of qualifying, each group receives 20 minutes of track time. The fastest six cars from each group advance to Segment Two, while the remaining cars are assigned positions 13-26. Group One drivers will occupy the odd-numbered positions (13, 15, 17...) while Group Two drivers will occupy the even-numbered positions (14, 16, 18...) based on their fastest lap times.

During Segment Two, the 12 advancing cars receive 15 minutes of track time. The fastest six advance to the Firestone Fast Six Shootout while the remaining six cars are ranked in positions 7-12 based on their fastest laps.

            During the Firestone Fast Six, the six cars receive 10 minutes of track time, with a guarantee of five minutes of green flag time. Each car receives one additional set of Firestone Firehawk tires for use during this final segment. At the end of the session, the cars are ranked 1-6 based on their fastest laps.

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            PEAK Performance Pole Qualifying presented by AutoZone takes on added significance this weekend. The winner of the pole will receive one championship point, marking the first time since 2000 that points have been awarded based on qualifying.

            The IndyCar Series point structure will mimic that of Firestone Indy Lights with one point being awarded for the pole and two points to the driver who leads the most laps during the race. The rest of the point system for each race – descending from 50 for first place, 40 for second, 35 for third, etc. – is unchanged.

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            Dario Franchitti says “it’s an unusual feeling to be wearing a kilt walking down the street in New York City.”

            The occasion earlier this week was the seventh Dressed to Kilt – an event that celebrates all things Scottish and raises funds to benefit the Wounded Warriors program and the Paralyzed Veterans of America through the non-profit Friends of Scotland. Sean Connery was the host.

            “I’ve been trying to do it for years but the schedules never worked out,” Franchitti said. “It’s always fun when you get a bunch of Scottish people together.”

            Franchitti has traded in the tartan for a green Air Wick firesuit for the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. His No. 10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing car also is green for the weekend. But isn’t green supposedly unlucky in racing?

            “I wore green for five or six years with Team Green,” Franchitti said of his time in CART. “People say you don’t want to be in a green car, but I love to be in a green car. Plus, it’s the color of my favorite team, Glasgow Celtic.”

            Franchitti, whose Web site (www.franchitti.com) was re-launched April 3, made a special request for the Air Wick Freshmatic Ultra to be in the team transporters for the remainder of the season.

            “Believe me, with over 30 guys working in and out of these trucks every weekend, the automatic spray's time-released fragrance will be a much welcomed addition for everyone,” he said.

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      The United States Marine Corps and United States Air Force have partnered with Luczo Dragon Racing to support the No. 2 car throughout the 2009 season.

      The Marines decal and Eagle, Globe and Anchor emblem were placed on the car between the practice sessions. The Air Force will alternate with the Marines as Luczo Dragon’s primary partner throughout the season.

      “We are so honored to have the No. 2 Luczo Dragon car represent the United States Marines Corps and United States Air Force throughout the IndyCar Series season,” Luczo Dragon Racing co-owner Jay Penske said. “For us to even be considered to run those two brands next to ours is a tremendous honor. They both epitomize strength, commitment and preparation. Our team will be determined to uphold those same characteristics and competitiveness.”

            “I am honored to drive No. 2 car and represent the United States Marine Corps and Air Force,” Raphael Matos said. “I live in Miami and I have the utmost respect and appreciation for everything the Marines and Air Force do to protect our freedom here in the United States.”

INDYCAR SERIES POST-PRACTICE QUOTES

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 02 McDonald’s Racing Team, fastest): “I think for the whole McDonald’s crew it’s been a pretty good day. This morning we came out of the box and we were 10th, and I think some of the guys were a little worked up but we knew that the car was quick. As Justin (Wilson) just said, even in the first session we couldn’t ultimately get our good lap. We got held up a little bit but that doesn’t really matter. In the second session we knew we had a pretty good car. It was all about trying to find some little tweaks that were going to help us in the long run. We ran old tires for quite awhile. We were still right up there in the top five, so we were pretty happy with that. Then we threw the new tires on and obviously things went pretty well. We got caught behind Danica (Patrick), which kind of hurt us a bit b ecause it seemed like you could be three seconds back and still catch her in a lap, so that kind of got me out of my rhythm. I kept having to back up into him (Wilson) and I’m sure that got him out of his rhythm. But we got one good lap in, and obviously we’re pretty happy with that. There’s still a little bit left on the table, but overall for the whole McDonalds team this has been a pretty good day.”

JUSTIN WILSON (No. 19 Sonny’s Bar-B-Q, second): “I think we had a pretty good day. The Sonny’s Bar-B-Q car was working well and we were able to keep working on it. We were trying to get the ride quality even better to absorb some bumps out here, because that’s a pretty big part of it. I’m very pleased with the progress. I think this afternoon is not a true reflection of what we can do or of what everyone else can do because it was pretty messy out there at the end. With 22 cars, everyone is eager to get the season started. So there were lots of little incidents going on out there, but I think we are in good shape and hopefully we can stick it in the top six tomorrow and challenge for that pole position.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 11 Team 7-Eleven, fifth): “It was a good day for Team 7-Eleven. We didn’t run this morning in the first session, but we have a decent car, so I am pleased and looking forward to qualifying tomorrow.”

RYAN BRISCOE (No. 6 Team Penske, sixth): “It's really exciting to be back here in St. Petersburg and get this season started again. It was a fun day; we didn't run a whole lot this morning, because of the weather and we wanted to save tires for qualifying and the race. The Team Penske car feels pretty good thus far. We're not perfect yet but I think we'll be fine for tomorrow. We certainly have high hopes for this weekend.”

WILL POWER (No. 3 Team Penske, eighth): “It was a good first day for me with Team Penske. We had a bit of weather in the first session, which held us up a little. We're quietly confident about tomorrow, and we're going to sit down tonight and have a good think about qualifying. I think there's a lot of fast guys out there, so we’ll have our work cut out for us to get into the top six.”

VITOR MEIRA (No. 14 ABC Supply Co. AJ Foyt Racing, ninth): “Overall I’m really happy. There were a lot of expectations leading up to today, and I think our winter has paid off. It’s still the first day of practice but I think there is more in the car. I’m still very encouraged.” (About the pit lane accident) “I don’t know whose fault it was but I know it wasn’t mine. I was in the high speed pit lane and Wheldon was in the transition lane. I know he saw me but then he turned into me so quick. I heard afterwards that there was another car involved and he did it to avoid hitting the other car. I didn’t see the other car but that would explain a lot. It didn’t hurt my car too much, knocked out the toes a bit but everything else seemed fine.”

DANICA PATRICK (No. 7 Motorola, 10th): “I would have to say we are heading in the right direction. The Motorola car got faster throughout the day, so hopefully we will be where we need to be for qualifying tomorrow.”

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FIRESTONE INDY LIGHTS QUALIFYING NOTES:

·         J.R. Hildebrand wins the pole. This is the first career pole for J.R. Hildebrand. He has made 18 starts over the last two seasons.

·         This is the ninth pole for AFS Racing.

·         Junior Strouss will start second in his first race in the series. It is also the first race for Winners Circle Group.

·         Sebastien Saavedra will start third in his first race in the series.

·         James Davison will start fourth. Davison’s career best start was first at Nashville last season.

·         James Hinchcliffe will start fifth in his first race in the series.

FIRESTONE INDY LIGHTS QUALIFYING QUOTES

J.R. HILDEBRAND (No. 26 ARPRO, Pole winner): “You can’t start a season much better. We had a really good session. It was a little bit broken up because the cars were really slipping around, because the track hasn’t really gripped up after the rain. I think I went out too aggressive, because I remembered how the track was last year at the end of the day. I had to tone it down a little bit because I actually knocked the wall a little with my first set of tires. But I got it all together and was able to put in a good lap at the end. It was just a good session for me and a good session as a team. It’s a great way to start the season.”

JUNIOR STROUSS (No. 18 Shell V-Power Knaus HTP, second): “We had a great day today. This morning it was raining, and I was bummed out about it because I knew it was going to be dry during qualifying. In the rain it went really well. Each time we were on the track we were fastest, so that gave me a lot of confidence. But you never know how the car is going to be in the dry. But the car was also good in the dry. Qualifying was only 20 minutes, and we had two long full-course yellows. But I was up front right away, and then we had three more minutes to go, so it was do or die. On the second-to-last lap, I had a guy in front of me, so I did a do-or-die move to pass him, because I knew the last lap had to be perfect. The last lap was amazing. It felt really good. It’s good to be up front.”

SEBASTIEN SAAVEDRA (No. 27 Automatic Fire Sprinklers, Inc., third): “Today’s qualifying was unbelievable. Since I have never been on this track, I didn’t know what to expect. We went out this morning and it was raining, so it was hard to really learn the track, but then we went back out after the rain had cleared and I did. I was P1 at one point and then spun out at the last turn, but my teammate (J.R. Hildebrand) got the pole, so I’m very happy for him and his crew. The AFS/AGR crew has done a great job both on the track and off the track. It shows what a great team I’m on and makes be even more excited about this season.”

JAMES DAVISON (No. 21 Vision Racing, fourth): “To be honest, it’s been a challenging day with practice this morning being wet and then going into qualifying with an unknown setup. In my qualifying session, we were all sliding around a lot and struggling for overall grip. It’s a good starting position for the race but we need to do some work tonight to make sure we are competitive in qualifying tomorrow for the second race.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 7 Hinchtown/Sam Schmidt Motorsports, fifth): “I don't think you can ever be satisfied with your qualifying unless you're sitting on the pole. For us, it was a very difficult sort of day because we had the rain in the morning practice, and then it was dry during the afternoon qualifying. As a result, we had to learn the track along with qualify at the same time in only 10 laps or so. For me, having never been here, that was a pretty tall order. I guess maybe we shouldn't be too disappointed with our overall position, but at the same time, I think we missed a little bit on the setup on the car. I'm actually confident that if we can get it sorted that we'll be a challenger for the pole in qualifying for the second race. I say that because knowing the car didn't feel great, and being only four-tenths (of a second) off, I think that's pretty manageable. So, we'll put our heads together, and tomorrow we'll make the best of it. Again, it's not a long session, but we'll try and put the No. 7 car on the front row.”

ANA BEATRIZ (No. 20 Healthy Choice/Sam Schmidt Mtrspts, seventh): “Qualifying was tough. We expected to be so much better. The track was so much different from last year. What we had expected wasn't the case, and we really didn't have time before qualifying to try things out because of the rain. I think I may have been over-driving the car a little bit. Starting seventh isn't the worst thing. We just have to work on a fast Healthy Choice/Sam Schmidt car for the race and overtake people and try to get into the top five.”

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            James Hinchcliffe makes his Firestone Indy Lights debut this weekend and leading laps will have an extra meaning for the Canadian.

            Hinchcliffe has aligned himself with the Waldenstroms Macroglobulinemia Foundation of Canada (WMFC) and pledges to donate five dollars for every lap the #7 Hinchtown.Com entry leads throughout his entire 2009 campaign.  The selection of the WMFC was an easy one for Hinchcliffe as it holds special meaning for him.

            “Waldenstroms Macroglobulinemia (WM) is a very rare blood cancer that my Grandfather passed away from over ten years ago.  Being such a rare condition it doesn’t get a ton of attention and I have always wanted to do something to help the foundation raise money to find new treatments,” Hinchcliffe commented.

            He will carry the WMFC logo on his Indy Lights car this season while including a link to a WMFC donation page on his website www.hinchtown.com

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                FIRST Motorsports announced it has signed www.flipNbags.com as an associate sponsor for the #19 entry of Stefan Wilson.

                FlipNbags.com is the place to shop for a collapsible backpack cooler specially designed for the racing and general sports enthusiast. These unique coolers have features not found in other coolers like integrated seat cushions and a lifetime “no leak” guarantee. New additions to the flipNbags brand will include lunch boxes and back packs for children and a line of business accessories.

            “We are very proud that flipNbags.com has chosen our team to represent them in open-wheel racing in North America,” said team owner Jon Lewis. “Their products are representative of the quality of our team. If you’re looking for the best coolers and bags on the market, there is no better place to go then to www.flipNbags.com.”

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SATURDAY’S SCHEDULE (all times local):

6 a.m. Garages open8:05-9:05 a.m. IndyCar Series practice (two groups)9:55-10:35 a.m. Firestone Indy Lights Qualifying10:50 a.m.-12:20 p.m. PEAK Performance Pole Qualifying presented by AutoZone4:15 p.m. Grand Prix of St. Petersburg pre-race4:45 p.m. Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Race 1 (40 laps/72 miles)


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