ST. PETERSBURG - Dario Franchitti took a joy ride around the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg course Thursday, following the red lines that define the boundaries of the city's erstwhile open-wheel race. It was a slow, methodical lap in his rental car en route to the morning news conference at the Bayfront Center, where the Indy Racing League announced it will race through downtown for at least the next three years.
But the 14-turn, 1.8-mile course - which might be tweaked slightly - was enough to make the 10-time CART series winner eager for the three, nonoval 2005 dates the IRL added to its 17-race schedule.
"I think the setting, first of all, for the fans is amazing," Franchitti said. "The water, the boats, it's a pretty nice place to go racing. As far as the track, the signature part of this course is going to be (Albert Whitted) airport. We analyzed it a little bit, and there are some tight spots on the street portion. But at the airport, you're really going to be able to do some passing."
Other IndyCar drivers also seem intrigued by their league's first street course. Sam Hornish knows how much he will enjoy it.
"I raced in St. Petersburg in 1997 with the Formula Ford series, and I'm definitely looking forward to going back to compete there," the two-time series champion said. "It was a great circuit back then. The fans were very receptive to us. ... I'm also anxious to see how some of the IRL guys stack up against the former CART drivers on the street course, since most of us haven't competed with them at this level."
Though the series will get more difficult for drivers, as well as teams trying to properly set up cars for nonovals, Franchitti sees greater value in future titles.
"I think it further diversifies the series, puts another challenge in the package," he said. "It was hard enough to win a championship before, but it is really going to be hard now."
WORK IT OUT: Devil Rays senior vice president of business operations David Auker said Barry Green's promotional group has been accommodating in working out what could be a downtown conflict. The Rays would be completing their spring training schedule at Progress Energy Park the week before the April 3 race.
"We worked with the city and Andretti Green, basically to make sure that the fans coming to the spring training games have a fan-friendly entree into the city and the ballpark, so we called to talk to them about parking issues," Auker said. "There's only preliminary (spring training) schedules. It's a possibility (there could be conflict), but it's not set in stone."
Auker said he expects to discuss cross-promotional ventures with promoters in coming weeks.
SPARK PLUGS: Teams will get their first chance to test cars in road-course packages on Sept.21 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. A session scheduled for this weekend was scrubbed because of Hurricane Frances.