tampabay.com

IRL seeks one-two punch on schedule

By BRANT JAMES
Published April 5, 2005


ST. PETERSBURG - If Indy Racing League officials get their wish, the 2006 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg would be the first of consecutive weekends of street racing, with the Grand Prix of Long Beach added to the schedule and run a week later.

"We would love that," IRL president Brian Barnhart said. "It would give us the marquee street events, right coast and the left coast. It would almost be like Monaco with the tradition and the great backdrop for a race with the yachts and all that goes with that. It would just be huge for us."

Champ Car, which has run at Long Beach since 1984, will start its season there next week. It could be its last go-round. Champ Car's contract with promoter Dover Motorsports expires after the race and the IRL has held early negotiations with grand prix president Jim Michaelian .

"They're aware of our interest," IRL senior vice president of business affairs Ken Ungar said. "It would be an absolutely tremendous spring: the glamor of excitement of St. Pete and the long-term brand equity of Long Beach."

Dover Motorsports, which runs five venues and promoted the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in 2003 when it was a Champ Car (then Championship Auto Racing Teams) race, holds the rights to Long Beach. IRL officials ideally would want a deal done in a month but need a decision by early June to facilitate scheduling.

Having St. Petersburg and Long Beach run on consecutive weekends would work well for teams, because they would be able to use the same basic chassis setups for both courses, a plus considering the 2,600 miles between the cities.

Losing Long Beach, North America's most recognizable street event, would be a major blow for Champ Car, which is running its second season under the ownership of team-owners Gerald Forsythe , Kevin Kalkhoven and Paul Gentilozzi .

The IRL is convinced it has turned a market that CART let get away into something special. Ungar said Sunday's Grand Prix of St. Petersburg "was probably one of the greatest first-year efforts we have ever seen in racing." Though exact attendance figures were not available on Sunday, unofficial estimates range from 35,000 to 45,000 spectators.

"Our expectations were that it would be a solid event," Ungar said. "I walked the entire property and I was amazed what I saw. From the grandstands all the way down First Street they were lined up at the fences four or five deep, they were hanging over the balconies at Progress Energy Park. Absolutely amazing."

CLOSE, BUT: Panther Racing's Tomas Enge and Tomas Scheckter had two of the fastest cars on Sunday but were relegated again to poor finishes (16th and 17th, respectively) because of accidents. Enge qualified fifth but went out with 15 laps remaining when his No.2 Dallara/Chevrolet rammed into the back of Sam Hornish 's No.6 Dallara/Toyota and carried both off the course.

"I was trying to make a move to pick up as many positions as possible," Enge said. "Hornish and (Kousuke) Matsuura were dicing, and both cars moved down to the right and I held my line on the left. We were already in the braking zone when he moved into my line and I was pretty close to him, so I had no chance to avoid the accident."

Scheckter qualified eighth and was second with 27 laps remaining but later went into a tire barrier.

"I was trying to tuck in behind (leader Ryan) Briscoe as tightly as possible before our last pit stop," Scheckter said. "At one point I brushed the wall and bent some of the suspension in our Chevy. I didn't realize how bad the suspension was until we got back on the track. There was some play in the wheel, and with a full load of fuel and new tires, I had my hands full."

Neither Panther driver has finished a race this season.