Drivers need to shift gears, a lot

Published April 1, 2005

For IndyCar drivers accustomed to oval racing, the sharp turns and tight straightaways of a downtown street course can pose a unique set of challenges.

"If you're off by an inch - just an inch - you can wind up in the wall," said Dario Franchitti, a driver for Andretti Green Racing.

Franchitti and his fellow drivers know the physical demands of street racing well - the enormous G-forces on their cars that make steering difficult, the hard braking, the endless shifting.

"It's definitely more physically demanding than oval racing, though it isn't mentally as tough," said Buddy Rice of Rahal Letterman Racing, among a half-dozen drivers on hand Thursday at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort for a Grand Prix of St. Petersburg kickoff luncheon.

"You have got to be spot on. You can't make any mistakes because the wall is right there."

"They're totally different, but you'd probably say that road racing is a bit more physical," echoed Darren Manning of Chip Ganassi Racing. "In a single lap, you're probably shifting over a hundred times. Then you have the bumps on the track and a lot of bouncing around, the breaking."

Still, the drivers embrace street racing as a welcome addition to the IRL circuit, which is embarking on its first such event Sunday in St. Petersburg.

"I think a 50-50 mix would be great," said Bryan Herta of Andretti Green. "It's going that way, and I really have to give Tony George credit with the IRL. Ten years in now and they've really continued to evolve the product. It's become a World Class series. You have drivers from all over the world who want to compete in this series."

FOOT NOTE: Driver Dan Wheldon, a St. Petersburg resident, is limping a bit after slicing open the bottom of his left foot on a jagged piece of wood flooring in his Snell Isle home this week. Wheldon, who doesn't wear shoes in the house, said the sliver was more than an inch long.

Pressed for time, the Andretti Green driver declined a doctor's suggestion to stitch the wound. Apparently, sloppy installation of a new refrigerator was to blame for the injury, which will slow Wheldon in the paddock, but not on the course. Wheldon won the season opener at Homestead and is second in driver points.

HONDA FOND-A ST. PETE: Kurt Antonius, an executive with American Honda Motor Corp., raved about St. Petersburg as a racing site Thursday, saying there's no reason the grand prix can't become a "crown jewel" motor sports event.

"We flew down here and the second we got here, we went, "Whoa. There is something very, very special about this city," Antonius said.

He singled out the waterfront yachts, the airport, the skyline, as well as the support of Mayor Rick Baker and a City Council "that's unparalleled in other cities."

"This city," he added, "is nothing short of a spectacular locale to have a street race in."

THE DRIVER'S VIEW: The race is still two days away, but St. Petersburg has already scored big with the drivers. "We all want to race in front of enthusiastic fans," Herta said. "You feed off of that energy, and right when we got here, there were signs and things at the airport. I signed a bunch of autographs at the restaurant last night. There are people who are just excited about the race being here, and that makes us excited to be here, too." Added Manning: "We don't normally get this kind of reception so it's something new and novel for the IRL. It's a great place and it's got a bit of a buzz about it."

MISCELLANY: Bucs fullback Mike Alstott will be in position at the start and finish line Sunday, serving as the grand prix's honorary chairman. He'll utter the traditional "start your engines" pronouncement at 3:30 p.m. ... Drivers will take to the streets today for practice sessions. How much of that is to learn the course vs. learning the car? "Everything," Rice said. "Solely for the car," Manning said. "Mostly to test the car," Herta added. "The first couple of runs, you learn the track, but then it's down to business." ... Franchitti found a little time to get away from the track Wednesday, doing some fishing in Boca Grande. He's in town with his wife, actor Ashley Judd. ... Drivers got a recent road course tuneup in Sebring and all agreed it was beneficial. "You have limited test days," Rice said, "so any time you get on the track, especially leading into one of your races, it's helpful."