St. Pete: Final thoughts

IndyCar commentary — By on March 30, 2010 5:23 pm
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(Originally posted by Steph to Planet-IRL.com.)

As promised, here are some final thoughts now that I’ve returned home from the weekend’s event in St. Pete.

ON THE RACE. My excitement level for the road and street courses this season continues to be sky-high, and it’s getting harder to find others who disagree.  The Monday morning race time was able to draw all of the hardcore fans who weren’t irreparably indisposed, and given that the original ABC time slot carried on as scheduled, it will be very interesting indeed to see how the ratings look for Monday morning on ESPN2 now that so many American homes are equipped with DVRs.

As for the crowd at the event itself:  it was, in a word, phenomenal.  Frankly, given the attendance at some of the other races I went to last year, I wouldn’t have blinked had that been the Sunday turn-out.  The people of St. Petersburg love their IndyCar race to an impressive degree and with good reason — this track and the Series put on a great show here.

However, being that I was standing just inside turn 1 for the entire race and that corner’s CCTV went on the fritz about halfway through, I need to watch the broadcast before I can fully comment on many of the incidents.  Expect these stories to be among those discussed in this week’s Planet-IRL race review podcast:

  • Will Power’s very savvy move in the first turn to give way to a charging Marco Andretti was level-headed and calculated, and it allowed him to keep his car in one piece and come away with a race win.  Make no mistake — that’s the kind of quick and smart decision-making that wins championships.
  • After spinning out on the parade lap, Milka left the race on lap 9 due to “handling issues.”  We may never know the truth about where that call came from.  But CITGO doesn’t seem to be concerned, and we shouldn’t be surprised.  After all, if negative TV time is what they’re after — and given who they’re sponsoring, we have to assume that it is — then even with only nine laps on the books, CITGO received more than its fair share of attention and exposure over the course of the weekend.
  • Takuma Sato had reportedly been asking to pit for several laps before he finally put the car into the tires on lap 25.  This merits further investigation.
  • And Mario Moraes — who later revealed that he was driving while distracted by news that he’ll need to undergo head surgery this week to remove a cyst found in a pre-race medical exam — was a lap down when he spent three laps holding up a long pack of faster cars behind him.  And when he finally moved over to give way, he became the victim of Dan Wheldon’s bad luck when the National Guard car suddenly experienced a malfunction in the right rear and was sent careening into Moraes at a fair clip.  The result was a spectacular wreck of significant impact for a street course that saw both drivers uninjured but their cars shattered across turn 1.  Two observations can be made here:  one, let’s hope that Moraes doesn’t take the wrong lesson away from the fact that he was a victim of circumstance while in the process of doing the right thing; and two, as many predicted before wheels even contacted asphalt in 2010, it does indeed look as though KV is in for a very, very expensive season.
  • What was with Dixie this weekend?  He screwed up – not once, but twice, and by his own admission.  This man just doesn’t screw up, period.  Something ain’t right, there.
  • By the same token, it would have been easy to assume that something ain’t right with the entire Target Chip Ganassi Racing road and street program right up until Dario Franchitti started his late-race charge through the field.  When he did finally get going, he was absolutely on fire, and it was a sight to behold.  This was another one of those times where an age-old racing adage fits:  Dario didn’t lose, he just ran out of laps.  If he’d had that car under him with enough time to catch up to Will, it would have been a duel for the ages.
  • Simona was impressive once again, but her weekend’s result once again belies her performance.  She looks very racy out there, though, and with a team that doesn’t have a reputation for providing spectacular equipment.  This is unquestionably a story to watch.
  • It’s funny how finding Justin Wilson and Ryan Briscoe on the podium comes across as one of the less notable stories of the weekend.  Briscoe has to be happy with a third-place finish after his disastrous opener in Sao Paulo.  That should steady his feet a little heading into Barber.  And Justin has put up two skilled and consistent performances so far this year, and no less should be expected on the remainder of the road and street courses.  People have been taking his quote from the post-race press conference — the one where he mentioned that his team at one point told him just to “follow Will” — and citing it as an overall bit of advice that Justin should use to improve his performance.  The key detail that’s missing from that line of logic is this:  Justin is already that good.  He just isn’t driving for Penske.  He doesn’t need to follow anyone — his day will come.

ON THE CITY OF ST. PETE. On another note, I meant to comment earlier in the weekend about the experience of visiting the city of St. Petersburg itself.

There’s no question that, as I mentioned on Saturday, the track itself is very picturesque and the airport and grounds are well-maintained.  However, I found upon leaving the facility each day that the surrounding area was a ghost town.  Downtown St. Pete must be one of those bizarre urban centers that’s jammed with people from 8 AM to 6 PM from Monday to Friday but is barren at every other time because no one actually lives there — and the lack of activity unfortunately draws attention to the fact that the neighborhood immediately surrounding the track is a little on the economically depressed side.

To be fair, though, the University of South Florida campus is a large portion of this area, and it’s reasonable to expect a school to be quiet on weekends.  I should also point out that I never managed to find any time for socializing in the evenings on this trip, and I was told that if I’d gone just a bit further north than I did that I would have encountered a small but buzzing strip of nightlife.  I’ll have to look into that in more detail next time around.

That leads into a point worth making, though:  for this race, there are three distinct accommodation options.

  • The first is to pay through the nose for a very nice hotel room or vacation rental in downtown St. Pete.  The up-sell here is that you’d be walking distance from anywhere you could possibly need to be — including the track, restaurants, and the aforementioned nightlife — and it would be painless to forego renting a car and paying to park it.  If I’d had a healthier budget for this trip, this would have been my choice, hands down.  There are those who struggle with the idea of going car-free for a few days, though, and trying to have it both ways would get expensive very quickly.  (When I looked into rental cars, I found them quite pricy.  However, I’m led to understand this is because race weekend happened to coincide with the tail end of spring break this year and that this isn’t always the case.)
  • The second is to do what I did and stay in one of the lower-budget hotels just outside downtown and take taxis to and from the track.  Whether this is the best option for you depends a great deal on your level of tolerance with the condition of your accommodations.  The hotels and motels in the area I stayed in — which was where many outside downtown seem to be located, around US 19 and 54th Avenue — ranged from more than slightly run down (as mine was; ants in the room, stinky shower water, people being arrested in the lobby during check-out) to skeevy-looking cockroach- and bedbug-infested hellholes.  The only restaurant in this neighborhood is a Denny’s that employs a lovely if eccentric workforce, and the discount liquor store and tattoo parlor across the street add a signature touch of atmosphere.  If this type of thing bothers you less than spending money does, though, you might try the La Quinta on US 19 — from the outside, it looked like the nicest property in the area, though I didn’t stay there and therefore make no promises beyond that.  (A taxi ride to the track from this area averaged $18 including tip, by the way, making it a much more affordable option than renting a car at the prices I encountered.)
  • The third is to avoid the St. Pete area completely, rent a car, and drive to the track every day.  This opens up an array of possibilities, including staying in downtown Tampa or finding a nice spot on one of the many beaches nearby.  However, since we never drink and drive (right, kids?), it also means having to find a responsible DD if paying too much for beer at a racetrack is your thing.  That said, though, parking options didn’t seem the least bit exorbitant to this urbanite — the average was $10 a day, and it was apparently possible to find three-day passes for $15 in some parking garages — but spots must fill up quickly since the city of St. Pete also runs a shuttle to the track from Tropicana Field, which also costs $10 a day and is located a few minutes away.  (Interestingly, this service wasn’t set up for Monday once the race was rescheduled.  Given how many fans came out in the end, I’d like to know whether parking downtown became an issue.)

Anyway, the overall verdict:  I’ll happily attend this event again.  The track is picturesque and consistently provides a good show, the locals are lovely and greatly appreciate the event, and the challenges are far from being deal-breakers.  This one has landed on my go-whenever-possible list.  (And the excuse for a quick sunny getaway at the end of the long Canadian winter is a definite bonus.)

I owe an enormous thanks to all of you for following my coverage this weekend; it was a joy to be able to offer it.  Keep an eye out for Planet-IRL’s St. Pete wrap-up podcast later this week.  The next race where I’ll be providing live on-the-ground coverage will be at Long Beach in three weeks.  I’m greatly looking forward to it already.  Thanks for reading and supporting Planet-IRL.com!

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