Today’s question: What is your most memorable edition of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding, which will serve as the 2023 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season opener Sunday, March 5?
Curt Cavin: There are many to choose from, including the first St. Pete race of this iteration of the series in 2005 when Michael Andretti’s drivers finished 1-2-3-4 with Dan Wheldon, Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta. (That’s a race Kanaan has long kicked himself for not winning, but it was a terrific “hometown” win for Wheldon.) But for me, the more memorable race there was Graham Rahal’s victory in 2008. Remember that Graham had missed the season-opening race at Homestead-Miami Speedway due to a crash, but he came back a week later and won his first race in the series -- it also was Newman/Haas/Lanigan’s first race win in the unified series. Graham was only 19 years old and became the youngest race winner in series history by driving away from the more experienced Helio Castroneves, and it’s interesting to watch the video from that day because Bobby looked more like a father than he did in the Graham victories since. I’ve covered more than 700 races in my career, but that father-son dynamic makes that one stand out.
Joey Barnes: There are a lot of great memories that have happened on the Streets of St. Petersburg. For me, though, none were as emotional as 2012. The first race to start the season, but more importantly to recognize it as the first race since the loss of the late Dan Wheldon in the finale of 2011. As Curt alluded to St. Petersburg being Wheldon’s adopted hometown where he resided, the two-time Indianapolis 500 champion was honored in a ceremony with Turn 10 being “Dan’s Turn” and renamed Dan Wheldon Way. It was where he made the winning pass in his only victory at the circuit in 2005. When Helio Castroneves captured the win – his third and most recent in the event – he didn’t do a traditional fence climb in Turn 1, but instead stopped his No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet in Turn 10 for his trademark celebration and made his climb to the newly revealed street sign. To this day, that remains the last time a St. Petersburg podium was occupied by all of the “Big Three,” with Castroneves holding the top step of the podium ahead of Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon and Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay.
Paul Kelly: Robert Wickens’ sensational INDYCAR SERIES debut in 2018 on the Streets of St. Petersburg always will stick with me. We knew Wickens was good entering that season. After all, he had plenty of global racing pedigree with open-wheel stints in Formula 2, GP3 and Formula Renault and six seasons in the DTM, probably the most technologically sophisticated touring car series in the world. But it’s probably unlikely that many outside of a few within Schmidt Peterson Motorsports expected the Canadian to be this good this quickly. Wickens won the pole for his first career INDYCAR SERIES start and was magisterial and fast in his control of the of the race, leading 69 of the first 108 laps. It appeared Wickens might become the first driver to win his maiden INDYCAR SERIES start since Buzz Calkins in 1996 at Walt Disney World but truly since Nigel Mansell in 1993 at Phoenix since so many drivers made their INDYCAR SERIES debuts in the very first Indy Racing League event at Disney World. But the field was bunched for a restart with Wickens leading and Alexander Rossi second with two laps to go. The wide runway at Albert Whitted Airport that comprises the front straightaway at St. Pete tempted Rossi to dive inside of Wickens for the lead, even with the narrowing entry to Turn 1. Wickens appeared to leave room before easing toward the corner apex, but Rossi’s car slipped on the painted lines on the runway and side-swiped Wickens into the concrete wall. That collision promoted Sebastien Bourdais to the lead and victory. Wickens said he left plenty of room for Rossi; Rossi countered by saying Wickens chopped him at the apex of the turn. It's tough to parse blame after watching a YouTube video of the incident; if this was an NFL replay review after a challenge flag, the officials might be under the hood for five minutes. I sided with Wickens that afternoon and still do even if Rossi’s move was justified and had no malice. But the contact ruined what should have been the capper for a brilliant debut weekend for Wickens.