St. Pete: Saturday thoughts

IndyCar commentary — By on March 27, 2010 6:17 pm
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(Originally posted by Steph to Planet-IRL.com.)

We have a lot to cover, so I’ve split it up into three sections so that you can pick and choose the content you’re interested in.

THE RACING. This weekend is jam-packed with on-track action.  I caught as much as I could, but in my opinion, there were three events worth highlighting from today:

USF2000 race 1. This was Saturday’s only open-wheel race.  Sage Karam picked up his Andretti Autosport car and ran away with it very early on.  It was blindingly obvious that he was light years ahead of the field — he was finding the limit of the tires better than everyone, his car was handling better than everyone, and he was taking better lines through the corner than everyone.  It was even possible to pinpoint the exact moment when his team told him he had enough of a lead to gently ease the car to the finish.

The unfortunate side effect to this is that, barring contact or mechanical issues, it’s very likely that this scenario will replay itself in every race this season.  This is bad news for this recently reinstated series, which might struggle to maintain a following if Karam becomes too dominant.  However, it’s impossible to fault Andretti Autosport for putting together a top-notch effort and supporting the Road to Indy.  Let’s hope that other IZOD IndyCar Series teams see fit to follow suit — USF2000 would benefit greatly from a boost in car count and in engineering support from the upper levels.

IZOD IndyCar Series qualifying. The vast majority of our readership will have watched this session (or tried to, anyway — it looked from Twitter that there may have been some issues with IndyCar.com’s Race Control), so there’s little point in rehashing the whole thing.  Here are the main take-aways:

- If we weren’t already sure that Power will be the man to beat on street courses this year, we are now.

- Milka continues to be an embarrassment.  With thanks to @djcraske for compiling the numbers, she would have qualified 15th in the Firestone Indy Lights field.  She’s a hazard.  Something must be done.

- NHL did a spectacular job of getting the back-up 06 car ready for qualifying (though it looked like that may have been accomplished at least partially thanks to some good luck in their having drawn Q2).  Mutoh took that car and qualified his team in the top 12, which also qualifies them for heartwarming story of the day.

Firestone Indy Lights qualifying. By this point in the day the track was very slick, and just about everyone was getting loose under power from where I was sitting.  It was unfortunate to see Stefan Wilson end up in the wall part way through the session, though I happened to catch a look at the car as it went by at the end of the session and, unless I missed something, the damage didn’t look terrible.  I’m sure he’d prefer to have a better starting position, though.

I started to think this right after the FIL test at Barber but didn’t want to get ahead of myself — and then a couple of disappointing tweets after further testing earlier this week gave me a moment of hesitation — but I think I’m now ready to say it:  2010 looks to be Hinch’s year.  It’s been a long time coming, and it is still awfully early to call it, but this may just be the season that sees Hinch finally hit on just the right combination of experience, maturity, and a team that’s working with him well.  Team Moore looks poised to put forth a very strong effort with what appears to be solid funding for two quality cars, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them give Hinch the support he needs to give powerhouse teams AFS/Andretti and Sam Schmidt Motorsports a run for the title.

THE TRACK. Right off the top:  this is a very pretty racetrack.  It’s also highly walkable (though keep in mind that I’m a walker) — I got from one end of the infield to the other in about five minutes, and there’s really not much reason to go all the way to the far north end of the track, the turns 5 through 9 section, unless you come in from that way or you’re feeling adventurous.

Every grandstand has a great view from what I could see, not only of the track but also of the scenic backdrop of the bay.  I’m not convinced there’s a bad seat in the house.  CCTVs are well-arranged as well (though an extra one on the pit straight wouldn’t be a bad idea).

If I were to buy a reserved seat, my top choice would be grandstand 10.  This offers a view of most of the front straight and turns 1 and 2, and (if you have good eyes like I do) you can even see right down to the starter’s stand.  The only drawback I noticed is that this area is a bit isolated and very poorly served by concessions, so it would be prudent to arrive there with everything you expect to need food- and drink-wise for as long as you plan to be in your seats — otherwise, you’re leaving yourself at the mercy of the wandering vendors, and they were definitely scarce (at least today).

If you want to be off the pit straight and save a few dollars, grandstand 23 is a good choice as well, and there are certainly more food and entertainment options close by.  If you can’t get a seat in a high row, though, go ahead and skip it — there’s a general admission viewing area directly in front of this grandstand, and unless you’re, say, eight rows up or higher, you’re not gaining any benefit over that in terms of view.

The only other options for grandstands are along the pit lane, of course.  I’d lean toward grandstand 7 in this case, as close to turn 1 as possible, to get a view of the points-leading teams’ pit stalls and a decent view of turn 1.  None of the others grandstands on that stretch are exceptional (though, as I said, there isn’t a bad seat in the house).

Another key point that’s definitely worth noting is that I believe every single grandstand here is wheelchair-accessible, which isn’t something I’ve seen at a temporary circuit before.  That’s a very forward-thinking move by Green Savoree Promotions, and it’s one that should be emulated by other venues as much as possible.

I was asked to report back on the general admission race-viewing options, and there are many — some of them even hold promise of being able to sit during the race rather than standing for two hours.  Not all of them are within viewing range of a CCTV, though, which I find essential to my street-race viewing experience, though your mileage may vary.

For places to sit (but no CCTVs):  there’s a bit of a tailgate party that goes on in a grassy field just outside the Mahaffey Theater, and there’s a small hill close to the track there that would offer pretty good views.  There’s a raised platform next to the building as well where one could potentially sit on the edge of the concrete.  Alternately, at the north end of the track behind the baseball field, there’s another raised platform that had a view of turn 5 and even had a bit of cover from the sun.

For CCTVs (but no sitting): grandstand 23 at turn 10 had a standing-room area in front of it today.  With a CCTV and a passing zone (for the little cars, at least), this is a great choice if it’s available — though I can’t promise it’ll have the same access tomorrow.  There’s also a spot on the inside of the track at turn 6 where you can find a CCTV and some openings in the fence with decent views.

For any of these options, though, you’ll want to secure these spots very early — they will fill up fast tomorrow!

As for the logistical locations of the IICS, I always find it interesting to see which parts are locked down and which aren’t as it varies greatly by track.  The paddock and pit areas here require purchased passes as usual.  The paddock is in an interesting spot on the bottom level of a multi-level parking garage, which means that the teams don’t have to put their tents up to protect themselves and the equipment.  This is probably as nice for them (for convenience) as it is for us (for views).  The team hospitality area, on the other hand, appears to be wide open and is located separate from the paddock in a relatively high-traffic area.  Between that and the fact that there’s a fairly long free-access pedestrian walkway between the paddock and the pits, I would guess that you’d find plenty of photo and autograph opportunities here without needing to buy pit/paddock passes.  (But please don’t interrupt the drivers and teams while they’re eating.  They don’t like that.)

THE FAN EXPERIENCE. The crowd looks great to me, and I wouldn’t say that just to pander — I’m genuinely impressed.  From having talked to team personnel, I wasn’t the only one who thought this, and the consensus seems to be that attendance is up from last year.

When I read in the driver quotes leading into this weekend that someone (I think it was Danica) had said that the fans here are keen and knowledgeable, I rolled my eyes — that’s what they have to say at every track, isn’t it?  Here, though, I’ve found that it’s actually true.  They definitely know the teams and drivers, they know where to be and when to be there, and they’re very, very enthusiastic.  The whole place has a great vibe to it.  I’m anticipating that it will be even better tomorrow.

Track food selection here looks great — lots of variety, and not all of it is deep-fried.  (This leads me to suspect that Green Savoree Promotions is forced into a concessions supply arrangement by Exhibition Place in Toronto, where the food offerings last year were positively dismal.)  Drink prices, on the other hand, are at the typical level of extortion for a track that doesn’t allow personal coolers, but that’s to be expected.

The Indy Fan Zone, where all the Downforce events are held, is in a bizarre and desolate area of the track up in the turn 6-9 section.  There are no grandstands in that area, and there’s no reason for anyone to walk through there unless they happen to enter the track from that gate.  While there is a small carnival-type thing set up, it’s not really enough of a draw to bring people in from the rest of the grounds.  It’s a highly unusual location, and it does nothing to sell the fan club to fans wandering through the facility — disappointing to say the least.

I took a quick walk through the official merchandise store early this morning to check out the new gear.  The men’s stuff is seriously hot — they have a ton of polo options, and the classic Indy-inspired shirts look awesome.  A selection of the Andretti Autosport merch is available in the main store as has been the case in previous years — and yes, for those who were asking, they’ve added RHR shirts as well.  The women’s stuff, on the other hand, is a pretty weak selection.  I’m not one to turn myself into a walking billboard very often, but I’d do it for the IICS — sadly, this year’s selection doesn’t include anything I’d be caught dead wearing.  It would be great to see that situation improve as the season goes on.  Outside the realm of clothing, the diecast line is still the 2009 stuff, old ICS logos and all.  There were lots of updated versions of the usual IICS swag otherwise.

Venturing outside the official store, there’s a separate Andretti Autosport trailer that’s hawking 90% Danica merch, and Ganassi has a trailer here as well.  Those are the only two I spotted other than a couple of the usual generic vendors and a number of GP of St. Pete merch stands.  (Their stuff looks decent, by the way.)

More tomorrow.

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