The late Dan Wheldon won the first St. Petersburg Grand Prix in 2005. Shortly after his victory, he made the city his permanent home. Having embraced this charismatic driver as one of their own, St. Pete residents felt a great sense of loss following his untimely passing at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last year. In March the city renamed a street Dan Wheldon Way--and, fittingly, that street became Turn 10 of the Grand Prix course on race weekend.
Many events honored Wheldon and his family during this year's IndyCar season opener, the eighth straight to be held on the downtown streets of this scenic bayside city. Perhaps the most moving moment came after Helio Castroneves, Wheldon's former teammate, took the checkered flag to give Chevrolet its first IndyCar victory. Castroneves stopped his car in Turn 10, climbed the fence, and patted the sign bearing Wheldon's name. It was a fitting tribute to the popular driver.
Fortunately for sports-car enthusiasts, the SCCA World Challenge series also holds its season-opening race in St. Petersburg. The popular event matches top-level sports cars against one other on a tight, 1.8-mile street circuit. Half of the course runs along the city's beautiful marina and waterfront, while another portion snakes past the Salvador Dali Museum.
Dali understood the appeal and romanticism of the car, and he featured it in many of his works. In the museum is a work titled Rainy Rolls 2010, a recreation of Dali's "Rainy Taxi" exhibit from 1938. The car features a rear cabin with rain pouring inside of it. Race-ticket holders were able to visit the museum for half price during the race. It was a worthwhile addition to the weekend's entertainment, and a must-see for anyone visiting St. Petersburg.
GM-powered cars were big newsmakers at this year's SPGP. Besides Castroneves' victory for Chevrolet, a CRP Racing Corvette driven by Mike Skeen set the fastest qualifying time. Skeen broke the GT lap record with a time of 1:114.700. Just a tick behind was Andy Pilgrim with a 1:114.899 in his Corvette-powered Cadillac CTS-V coupe. Andy Lee's Camaro was the quickest qualifier in the slower GTS category with a 1:21.598.
One 50-minute race was scheduled for Saturday and one for Sunday. A total of 50 cars in three classes qualified for these events. Nick Short, owner of Mike Skeen's Hawk Performance–sponsored Corvette, told Team VETTE that he will be focusing his efforts on a Nissan entry for the remainder of the season. While this is bad news for Corvette fans, it seems the Japanese manufacturer made Short an offer he couldn't refuse. Short said one of his former drivers, Brian Kubinski, would continue to race the Corvette on a limited schedule in the World Challenge this year.
Shortly before the start of Race 1 on Saturday, the CRP team was seen feverishly working on the Corvette. The team had heard a noise in the rear of the car as it was being moved in the pits. A crack in the differential was discovered, and a temporary repair was attempted. The car was buttoned up and sent to its pole-position starting place. Would it hold?
The Corvette and Pilgrim's Cadillac sat on the front row, while a second Caddy and a Porsche 911 occupied the second. The races begin from a standing start, and it's always an epic struggle to as the cars dive into the first turn. Unfortunately, Skeen realized on the warm-up lap that his differential was failing, so he moved into the pits to get out of the way of the starting field. The diff problems were deemed terminal, and Skeen out of the race before it started.
Meanwhile, a Cadillac driven by former Corvette Racing shoe Johnny O'Connell and a Porsche were swapping positions up front. Four caution flags allowed them to bunch up, and this proved to be a winning factor for the Caddy when a post-race review showed the German car passing under yellow. He was penalized, giving O'Connell the win. Tony Gaples, driving the Blackdog Racing Corvette, finished Eighth in the GT class.
The CRP Racing team spent Saturday night repairing the Corvette, and the car started in the back of the GT field for Race 2 on Sunday. The work proved to be in vain, though, as the car broke a halfshaft on the starting line and was out of the race again. This was a bad start for Skeen, who finished Second overall in the World Challenge standings last year.
This time a Porsche won the race and was not assessed any penalties. Cadillacs finished a very close Second and Third, giving the marque a nice start toward the championship. With Skeen moving to Nissan, we don't think Corvette will be much of a factor for the remainder of the World Challenge season unless a new competitive team enters, which seems doubtful. In the meantime, it's heartening to see that Corvette power still reigns supreme--even if the car in question doesn't bear the crossed-flags emblem.