So, a couple of days later, I’ve been able to take a step back at try and look over this weekend objectively.
I’ve decided I can’t do it, the weekend was just too amazing for me to be objective. If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook at all, you’ll probably have heard a lot of this. But not all. Some things don’t fit well into 140 characters. And we all know I’m a little long winded.
Mario Andretti's two-seater
Thursday morning I left work early, at about 1030, and headed over to St Petersburg. As I was heading down I-275, I started noticing a white Chevrolet rental sedan keeping pace with me as I maneuvered through slower traffic. At the wheel was a dark-haired man with thick sideburns and mirrored sunglasses. For the next 15 minutes, we’d trade places on who was in the lead as we wove through the medium-heavy traffic, staying between 65-85mph. I think he was having fun because he could have left me behind at any time. We both pulled in and parked next to the Hilton where I was to go get my credentials, and walked into the track together talking about the race and about how it changed the traffic of downtown St Pete. It was the current reigning IndyCar Champion and the winner of last year’s Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Dario Franchitti. It wouldn’t be the last time I would run into him over the weekend.
After going over the Firestone ped-bridge, we split ways, and I headed down to Pit Lane to meet up with the Pace Car drivers to get my ride on.
The track at St Petersburg is a 1.8 mile, 14 turn temporary street course that runs over an airfield, parking lot, and city streets, so the conditions change for the cars a lot throughout the race. THAT, and the curbing and wall positions have changed in little ways from last year, so, add that to the excitement factor.
It even took its toll on the pace cars.......
Dude, That SO wasn't me.....
And I was about to experience this excitement first hand. Unfortunately, no one would let a guy without an official racing license take a brand-spanking new DW12 out around the track for a few hot laps.
Trust me, I asked. Repeatedly. Of almost EVERY team on the grid. I still drive an S10, so, that tells you how successful my endeavor was.
2012 Honda Civic Si Pace Car
Hell, they wouldn’t even let me drive one of the pace cars, the 2012 Honda Civic Si. But they’d let me ride in one. Right behind Stefan Wilson, who decided to nail it and set a hot lap for the other Pace Car drivers to try and match.
Cranking into Turns 3 and 4
This video from the weekend was just a scosh slower than our lap, which, by my watch, Stefan smoked in around 2:02.26.
My commentary as I was getting out of the car, from my Twitter account: Ah, the sweet smell of tortured tires and cooked brakes :-) What a lap!!
After the Hot Lap. Happy Bri.
Can you tell I was stoked?
After the hot lap in the Civic Si, since I had about six hours to kill before I was supposed to meet up with other IndyCar Nation Champion Members to walk the track, I slung my camera over my neck, put on a purposeful stride....and went to see what I could get into. It's amazing how much you can get away with if you make it look like you know what you're doing :-)
So I headed across the Honda bridge and into the Support Series paddocks, where I found THIS:
458TP of the Ferrari Challenge North America series
There wasn't a heck of a lot of the support paddock open, but, since I had been at the track almost an hour, I jogged outand got the S10 to move it in accordance with St Petersburg's 2hr Downtown Parking rules. I would do this a few more times during the day, and end up calling it the St Pete Switcheroo. So, after looking for an open spot downtown, I ended up in the Cadillac Racing parking area.
I hiked from there all the way back to the IndyCar paddocks to shoot the new DW12s being prepped for the weekend.
Alex Tagliani's BHA Lotus-Powered Dallara DW12 in the paddock
While shooting the above, I ran into a familiar face, my friend Monica, who is now doing the PR for BHA. Monica is one of those people that I thank IndyCar for introducing me to, as she is a really great person and someone I have fun being around. Luckily she gets my sense of humor and can match it, as well. I mainly try to stay out of her way on race day, because she is always busy.
After harassing Monica for a bit and discussing the Hot Lap I had just ridden, I headed deeper into the paddock to shoot more of the cars. I couldn't find the Dragon Racing cars, and little did I know it was for a good reason. I would learn later that their Lotus engines had just arrived that day and were being fitted to the DW12 chassis.
Looking down Pit Road towards Pit In
I then wandered over to, and up and down, pit road, as no one told me I couldn't!!
Bryan Herta Autosport's pit. Am I the only one that thinks 60s MOPAR instead of a bad 70s song by Heart when I see Team Barracuda?
I wandered off and found some shade for a while, and ran into Lindy Thackston, who is working for Fuzzy's Vodka this season. Lindy and I have been crossing paths at the St Pete event since back in 2009 or so. Seems like longer some times! Deciding I was hungry, I headed off and grabbed the S10 to go get some dinner outside the track, because none of the vendors had set up yet.
By the time I got done, it was time to meet up with Liza, who I had been talking to over email for the prior week, to meet up with other Champion members to walk the track.
Into the Braking Zone for Turn 1
We met up with Peter Dempsy, who walked us through all the proper driving lines, braking points, and cornering setups.
Into Turn 8
While walking the track, we ran into almost all the drivers in not just the IndyCar, but the Lights, Ferrari Challenge, Star Mazda, USF200 and World Challenge series.
Turn 10, looking at the runoff area and grandstands
Looking East down Dan Wheldon Way
Dario and his crew pass us into Turns 11 and 12
By the time we were making the hairpin back onto the front stretch, the sun was setting.
Sunset over the Front Stretch.
Friday I spent a full day at work, then, in full Zombie mode, headed to the Fuzzy’s IndyCar Champion Member Welcome Party, which i don't remember, and, being exhausted and 30 miles from home, I didn't drink anything, and was so not my energetic self I ended up apologizing to Lindy and Liza later. I also apparently won the best prize of the entire party, as Liza handed it to me before she left. I'm not going to tell everyone what it was, but if you've seen my room recently, you'll know ;P
The Dallara that the IndyCars raced with the last 8 seasons (2003-2011) outside the Red Mesa Cantina
Saturday morning, I headed back out to the track. I started the day off wearing the bright orange Fuzzy's Vodka t-shirt from the night before, which came in handy later.
Tony Kanaan's DW12 rolled down Gasoline Alley
Not long after I arrived, the IndyCars rolled off for morning practice, and I got to hear those gorgeous turbocharged DW12s in full throat for the first time. The sound....The TV broadcast somehow didn't manage to really pick up the pop and crackle those bad boys make under shifting.
Katherine Legge follows Ryan Briscoe through Turn 1 in Saturday practice
Once practice was over, I headed back into the paddock, where Tags tried to run me over with his scooter on the way back to his garage. This has become somewhat of a pattern with the drivers Monica is working for. I kid because I run faster than she does ;)
About the time I got done in the paddock, my stomach was telling me to find food. Of course, as i did so, the Ferrari Challenge North America series started racing, so i had to watch THAT.
The Ferrari 438TP Italia roars into Turn 10
Once that race was over, I headed to the Fan Zone to see if I could find pizza. I had done so, and was walking towards a table to sit down when I noticed Monica standing around looking concerned. She's not a large woman, and the golf cart that was supposed to have collected her to go back to the hospitality area wasn't around yet. So I became the lead blocker to her fullback, and we went charging through the crowds with me clearing people out of the way. Once she was at her destination, I finally decided to check out my grandstand seats of Turn 1 and eat my lunch, which I did while watching the Star Mazda series and IndyCar qualifications.
Quite possibly the most experienced rookie in IndyCar history, Ruebens Barrichello
One of the drivers I will be excited to watch this season is shown above. As most of you know, my first love, auto racing-wise, is F1, and Ruebens has more starts than anyone.
Also, editorial note...NEVER wear Chucks to a race weekend. My feet STILL are pissed off at me.
After qualifying, due to the heat of the day, I swapped out my orange t-shirt for a wick-weave Izod IndyCar polo I'd bought earlier in the day, as well as dropping off some swag in the S10.
All of that took enough time that the BHA Tweetup was about to begin.
Alex Tagliani fields questions at the BHA Team Barracuda Tweetup
The Tweetup, organized by Monica, is a way for fans that use Twitter to congregate with one another as well as drivers and crew from the teams. Both Tags and J.R. Hildebrand were gracious enough to answer questions for us Tweeps (Tweeple? Twits? Twitizens?).
By the time THAT great event was over, (The BHA team graced all of us with official Tweetup T-shirts!!!) I realized I had literally 2 minutes to get all the way from the Fan Zone to the Hospitality Paddock for a meet and greet with this year's rookies. Yes, i sprinted it. No, I don't think I killed anyone....didn't even run anyone over.
But I made it.
Katherine Legge amuses the Champion Members while Liza tries to moderate the discussion.
Once in the meet-and-greet, the Champion members learned all about what Katherine Legge had been up to since she had left the Champ Car series in 2006 (DTM racing in Europe), she informed us of the team's late start, and amused all of us by speaking in an American accent when describing the next kind of vehicle she wants to buy (A pickup she can fit her go-kart in). Once that event was over, it was time to head home, because the next day, was RACE DAY.
Gustavo Yacaman and the IndyCar Champion Members (Photo credit to Liza Markle)
Sunday. RACE DAY. Honda Grand Prix of St Petersburg, the kickoff of the 2012 IndyCar series.
This is my favorite race of the year, outside of Indianapolis.
To start off the day, after Steve and I had driven in, Gustavo took the Champion members on a Behind-The-Scenes tour of the garage area and pit road.
The day was already humid as all get out, having rained earlier and during the night, and was muggy in that way that promises a hot day to come.
After the tour, Steve and I wandered around collecting mementos and food while trying not to get heat stroke, while saying hello to Cameron and a few other people I knew or had gotten familiar with over the weekend.
Eventually, start time for the race came around, and we headed to our seats.
During the driver intros, Hinch cracked the crowd up by walking across the stage as Manica, with his shoulder length black wig.
Then the event turned more somber and serious, as the track went silent for the video homage to Dan Wheldon. I freely admit to having tears in my eyes.
a SOCOM jumper brings in the POW-MIA flag
The HH-60J Jayhawk does the Flyover
Soon though, the drivers were strapped into their cockpits.
With the command, twenty six drivers started the engines, whether they be Chevrolet, Honda, or Lotus, and their DW12s rumbled to life.
The hair on my arms and the back of my neck stood up.
I can't explain adequately the thrill that goes through me with the firing of those engines.
And the melancholy that accompanied it this year.
It had been five very long months since the tragedy in Las Vegas.
We were about to go back to IndyCar racing.
I knew, and could feel that most everyone that understood the sport also knew, and could feel, that Dan Wheldon was smiling.
Ask anyone that was at that race, they'll tell you not only was Dan watching....he was there.
Soon, the cars had left pit road, and were on their pace laps.
And then.....Green Flag.
Ed Carpenter Roars down the front stretch
Last years winner and the man I ran into the most often all weekend, Dario Franchitti.
After the twelfth lap, we all started breathing a little easier.
If you follow IndyCar (And you're likely not reading this if you don't) then you watched the race on ABC. You likely saw the grandstands empty and thought the crowd got bored.
Because, from the telecast, there didn't seem to be a lot going on.
Far from it.
The stands were empty because of the heat. It was in the 80s normally, but the stands blocked any breezes, and the metal seats were over 100 degrees and the sun had little cloud cover to hide behind.
The stands emptied because all of us went into tents, the Paddocks, beneath trees, or under cover of some sort to avoid the scorching heat.
And there was action all over the track. I've been going to this event since 2005, and there was quite a lot more passing going on than in years prior. Also a lot less accident, as, in many years past, Marco hasn't made it out of turn 1 on lap 1.
After about 20 laps of baking on the grandstands, Steve and I headed over to the floating bar just off the Acura Overpass on Dan Wheldon way before turns 11 and 12. There was a great breeze, beautiful bartenders, we could see the backstretch, and had the course's closed-circuit TV on two large screens.
We all know how it ended, and the touching move Helio made to stop in turn 10, then turn and walk to Dan's sign. Again, not a dry eye in the place.
In my opinion, this was one of the better races in years, what with the new engine packages, the new DW12s, the smaller fuel tanks, and the unpredictable electronic gremlins. I can't wait for the rest of the season, and will cherish the friends and memories that IndyCar has given me.
Full St Pete Grand Prix IICS results
1 Helio Castroneves
2 Scott Dixon
3 Ryan Hunter-Reay
4 James Hinchcliffe
5 Ryan Briscoe
6 Simon Pagenaud
7 Will Power
8 E.J. Viso
9 Charlie Kimball
10 Justin Wilson
11 Josef Newgarden
12 Graham Rahal
13 Dario Franchitti
14 Marco Andretti
15 Alex Tagliani
16 Oriol Servia
17 Rubens Barrichello
18 Ed Carpenter
19 JR Hildebrand
20 Mike Conway
21 Sebastien Bourdais
22 Takuma Sato
23 Katherine Legge
24 Simona De Silvestro
25 Tony Kanaan
26 James Jakes