Thousands watch IndyCar street practice

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- When IndyCar Series officials reminded drivers Friday morning that the first turn they'd be taking was a right-hander, it wasn't an April Fool's joke.

Actually, the green flag to start the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg weekend was nothing less than the start of an exciting new era for the IRL.

The first non-oval race in series history is exciting for the series participants, because road racing is what the IndyCar drivers, sponsors and manufacturers have been clamoring for; and exciting for the series itself, because there were a significant number of people on hand Friday to watch practice. It was a crowd you could measure in thousands instead of dozens, which is often the case on the opening day of an IRL weekend.

The IndyCar Series' longstanding problem of underwhelming race day crowds at many of its ovals is well-known. What is less publicized is the fact that almost nobody shows up to watch practice and qualifying. At Homestead and Phoenix this year, less than a hundred spectators dotted the grandstands during Friday afternoon action.

On Friday in St. Petersburg, there were people everywhere: in the grandstands; walking the circumference of the scenic 1.8-mile street course; and seeking shelter from the blazing sun in shady parking structures, where enterprising vendors were smart enough to set up shop.

But then, the 2003 CART race on the same St. Petersburg course demonstrated the infrastructure and the potential for a great event was in place. CART's bankruptcy (which included some unpaid bills in St. Pete) killed the event as a Champ Car race, allowing the IRL to claim a valuable jewel at the pawn shop.

All that was missing for CART in 2003 was corporate horsepower and dollars -- something that Honda is supplying in spades this time around. For fans walking around the sun-drenched circuit, the Honda connection is unavoidable. There are shiny new Honda products scattered everywhere, with an emphasis on the recently introduced Ridgeline pickup.

"The mayor [Rick Baker] and the local government and business community are behind it, which is so important," said Tom Elliott, American Honda's longtime Executive Vice-President who is set to retire next month after more than 30 years with the company. "It's a beautiful place to hold a race and the response from the local fans has been tremendous."

Even the drivers noticed. It must be demoralizing running around in circles all day in front of a handful of people, especially to those who raced in Champ Car's glory days in the '90s when street races at Long Beach, Toronto and Surfers Paradise routinely drew 50,000 on Friday. Actually, those races still do.

"The promoters did a phenomenal job because we saw a lot of people here today, which is sometimes unusual," said Helio Castroneves, who paced the day's action in his Dallara Toyota with a 1 minute, 3.0836-second lap. "This track combines the best features of a lot of street courses and I think it's going to be a lot of fun for everyone."

Series champion Tony Kanaan should know, because the St. Petersburg race marks the debut of Andretti Green Promotions, a marketing arm of the race team which employs him.

"They worked really hard," Kanaan said. "I was here in December to promote the race and other guys have come in here and that really helped."

While Friday was hot and muggy, the IndyCar drivers will catch a break when overnight storms deliver much cooler conditions for the weekend. With much of the field out of physical condition for road racing, every little bit will help over the course of 100 laps on Sunday.

"In the race, you're going to see people make mistakes," predicted Kanaan. "After our Sebring test on Tuesday, I was destroyed! You can train as much as you want, whether it's running, swimming, boxing, whatever. We try to train as much as possible but there is nothing like driving the car.

"I'm sure some guys will get a wake-up call and after the race they will start working out more."

Castroneves was fastest in both Friday practice sessions, shaving 0.8-second off his time in the afternoon. His best lap was 2.1 seconds slower than Sebastien Bourdais' 2003 Champ Car pole lap, though slight modifications to the course and weather differences make direct comparisons meaningless.

Helio rarely has trouble controlling his enthusiasm, and after three years away from road racing in the IRL, he could barely control his excitement. "I had to tell myself, 'Hold on, Cowboy!'" he said, laughing. "I think I spun in my own drool."

"It's one thing to test, but on a street course, the walls are close and you can't make any mistakes at all," said Dario Franchitti, who ran second-fastest with a 1:03.150 lap. "We're still finding the limit, but it's great to be back on the streets and battling with the same guys we've been battling for years and years. It seems like we've been doing this for a long time."

There were a few foibles; a couple of minor incidents (the worst of which involved Ganassi Racing rookie Ryan Briscoe) caused the afternoon IndyCar practice to lag about 25 minutes behind schedule. Delays could have been avoided if the cars were required to have an operational reverse gear.

Chief promoter Barry Green says he is hoping to draw 60,000 fans over the three-day weekend, which would compare favorably to the 50,000 that CART claimed in 2003. Friday proved to be a solid start.

IRL founder Tony George said he watched the 2003 St. Petersburg CART race on television and liked what he saw in the venue.

"My impression at the time is that it was a great facility that showcased street racing in a great light," George said. "I hope we can put on an event that is equal to or better than that."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.