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Home-course advantage

St. Petersburg resident Dan Wheldon leads a 1-2-3-4 finish for the Andretti Green team.

By BRANT JAMES
Published April 4, 2005


ST. PETERSBURG - There's "went well" and then there was the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

It was, in a word, ludicrous. Or perhaps "Andretti."

In five words, as third-place finisher Dario Franchitti said, it was "like a NASCAR race, huh?" as in too close to the dream storyline to be plausible.

Andretti Green Racing's Dan Wheldon, Tony Kanaan, Franchitti and Bryan Herta produced the first four-driver sweep in Indy Racing League history on Sunday, putting the final flourish on the series' first street race, which just so happened to be promoted by a wing of their race team.

It came hours after Marco Andretti, the 18-year-old son of team owner Michael, won his debut in the IRL's developmental series on the same circuit.

"It's been a fairytale event, fairytale for me, for sure, personally," Michael Andretti said.

Skies were blue, breezes were cool and seats were filled with the ticket-buying curious as Wheldon, a new resident of Snell Isle who has been the face of the race on fliers and billboards, passed Kanaan with eight laps left to win his second race of the season in three events.

Wheldon loves his new home more than ever.

"This is just a good place to relax and unwind," the 26-year-old Briton said. "If you manage to come one, two, three, four with your teammates, it's a good place to rock 'n' roll later on."

Wheldon was third on the final restart on Lap 90, but grabbed the lead two laps later in his No.26 Dallara-Honda when leader Ryan Briscoe, a rookie with Chip Ganassi Racing, began blocking Kanaan, nearly sending him into the wall on the backstretch. Kanaan responded in Turn 10, where Bayshore Drive turns toward the runway of Albert Whitted Airport, braking deep in the corner and punting Briscoe into the barrier.

Wheldon said he was anxiously watching the situation develop. Kanaan had made hard contact with Briscoe's teammate, Darren Manning, in Turn 4 earlier in the race. Wheldon knew retaliation could open an avenue to the lead.

"I honestly had a little bit of an inkling that something was going to happen, just because with what happened with Darren," Wheldon said. "I'm pretty sure I know what (team owner) Chip (Ganassi) was saying on the radio to Briscoe. It wasn't going to be, "Let them by real easy.' I knew something could happen.

"I had to be close enough to take up that opportunity if it arose, which it did."

Wheldon, who started ninth, struggled with his brakes earlier but thrived on the lead, clicking off two of his fastest laps of the day to win for the third time in the past seven races and leap back atop the driver standings by 24 points over Kanaan.

Kanaan thought he might have had a chance to stop his teammate, but decided to be more professional than he thought Briscoe had been. He also didn't want to be the guy who foiled a four of a kind.

"I saw Dan coming. I didn't block him. I could have just moved over," he said. "He was going to have to lift. But I don't think it's the right thing to do. I played fair and I lost the race. But the team won, and I'm happy about that. It's the first one, two, three, four. Couldn't be in a better place."

Barry Green's sunburned face, awash with relief and an "it worked" smile, seemed to concur.

The head of Andretti Green's promotion group, which was presenting its first race, estimated the three-day crowd at "50 or 60,000 and exceeded our expectations" for the weekend but said an exact figure for race day may not be known for days. Green said walkup general admission sales continued until halfway through the race.

The IRL was clearly pleased, especially after drawing fewer than 10,000 for race day at its last race in Phoenix.

"We're definitely coming back," said league vice president of business affairs Ken Ungar. Good thing, because Green said he is already working on details for the 2006 race and has a three-year deal in place with the city and title sponsor Honda.

IRL president Brian Barnhart called any problems with the event "so small and insignificant there's no need mentioning them." The 1.8-mile temporary street course along the city's waterfront proved to be a good place to race.

Passing was more prevalent than on many street circuits and the race featured nine lead changes among six drivers. Though cautions consumed 25 of 100 laps, 10 came after a Lap 14 collision with A.J. Foyt IV that sent street-racing veteran Helio Castroneves out of the race.

"I think the fact we passed 30 or 40 cars today, I think that's probably the most amazing thing and the most exciting thing," Franchitti said.

Kanaan said the buzz around the city and race reminded him of the salad days of open-wheel racing, when the genre was unified under one league - instead of two competing ventures as it is today.

"The people," he said, "when we're walking to the pit area for the drivers intro, you know, screaming, saying your name, telling you, "Go.' Since Friday, since Thursday really, it's been amazing. I mean, we felt we're back in the old days."