ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- “We’ll see how Friday goes,” said Carlos Huertas, who was confirmed March 27 as driver of the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing car for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
Huertas, 22, of Colombia, tested at Sebring International Raceway in January and February for Panther Racing as he was seeking to break into the Verizon IndyCar Series season after competing in Formula Renault 3.5 last year.
Two practice sessions are scheduled for March 28 on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary street circuit, with a third preceding the three rounds of qualifications March 29 for the 110-lap race March 30 (3 p.m. ET on ABC).
Click it: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg entry list
“It’s not ideal; it would have been better to do the (Open) test, but the good thing is nobody has tested here,” Huertas said.
Justin Wilson, driving the companion No. 19 Honda-powered Dale Coyne Racing car, was briefing Huertas at the venue. Wilson, entering his third consecutive season with the team and fourth overall, placed sixth in the 2013 championship standings.
“That was one of the main reasons we wanted to come here because he’s really fast and good on road courses and ovals,” Huertas said. “We need somebody to push me along and I’ll listen to all he has to say.”
Huertas, who competed in the British Formula Three Championship in 2009-11, is among four drivers who will compete for the first time on the streets of St. Petersburg in the Verizon IndyCar Series. Jack Hawksworth, who has won in Pro Mazda and Indy Lights the past two years at St. Petersburg, will drive the No. 98 Bryan Herta Autosport car. Mikhail Aleshin, the first Russian to compete in the series, will drive the No. 7 SMP Racing car, while Carlos Munoz will be behind the wheel of the No. 34 entry for Andretti Autosport.
"Coming into the race weekend, we have had a couple of solid tests and I think we should be in pretty good shape to start the season,” said Hawksworth, who lived in St. Petersburg during his 2012 Pro Mazda championship-winning season. “The track is quite short (1.8 miles, 14 turns), low grip but still technical. We'll have to work hard and execute a clean weekend, but if we can do this then we'll be in with a shout."
The team announced that Charter Media will be an associate sponsor through the season and primary sponsor for the opening race.
Firestone Pit Stop Performance Award
Firestone will award $10,000 to the entrant of the car in pit lane the shortest amount of accumulated time during the race. To be eligible, cars must complete at least 95 percent of the scheduled laps.
The winner will be recognized during pre-race ceremonies of the next race.
Aleshin, 26, a native of Moscow, said “it’s very exciting” to represent his country in INDYCAR.
"The name St. Petersburg will also be very recognizable to Russian fans since it's also the name of one of our most famous cities,” he said. “It's funny that they'll be tuning in to watch me race at a different St. Petersburg in the U.S. It all fits together very well."
Marco Andretti finished a career-best fifth in the 2013 championship, which was kick-started by a third place at St. Petersburg.
"I won the (Indy) Lights race (2005), been upside down there (2009) and last year was on the podium there, so definitely some ups and downs at that track,” he said. “It really helps to start the year off strong and get some points out of the gate.”
The Florida Lottery is the primary sponsor this weekend of the No. 67 car Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing car driven by Josef Newgarden. … Four-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti and Indy car team owners Gerald Forsythe and Kevin Kalkhoven will be inducted into the Long Beach Motorsports Walk of Fame on April 10. Franchitti won the 2009 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach among his 31 Indy car victories. Forsythe's teams won twice on the street circuit (2003, '04) and Kalkhoven's team won the 2008 GP.