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John Sturbin: IndyCar Heads To St. Pete Facing A Revolution

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, March 21 2012

New cars, new engines, new drivers and Newgarden will be put to the test this weekend on Florida's Gulf Coast. (Photos courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series).

Josef Newgarden’s march to the 2011 Firestone Indy Lights championship began on the Streets of St. Pete, where the 21-year-old returns this weekend with a “big car” and revised expectations.

Newgarden is scheduled to make his IZOD IndyCar Series debut with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing in the season-opening Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, lapping the same temporary circuit where he started third, led 34-of-45 laps and set the fastest lead lap en route to a victory over Conor Daly.

Sunday’s 100-lapper on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn layout will be televised live on ABC at 12:30 p.m. (EDT).

“Well, I don’t expect to (win Sunday), no. I don’t think I expected it at Indy Lights even. It was a big weekend,” said Newgarden, recalling his debut with Sam Schmidt Motorsports last March 27. “There’s no better way than to go out and start with a win. That really gives you such a great flow for the rest of the year, to start off right like that.

“The biggest thing for us – if we could have a clean weekend, we could get a top-10 – that would be amazing. That would set a good tone for us. You know, we’d love to do more. We’d definitely love to be in the top-five. A win would be unbelievable, but we don’t want to set our sights too high. Again, if we have a really clean weekend with no incidents, then I think we’ll be really happy guys.”

That could be the mantra for the entire field, which will be racing the revolutionary Dallara DW12 chassis for the first time with power supplied by new turbocharged V-6 engines from Honda, Chevrolet and Lotus. That array of technical changes has challenged the series’ most experienced drivers and engineers during preseason testing at various locales, much less a fledgling SFHR organization that didn’t take delivery of its first Honda engine until Feb. 27.

That deal was brokered by rival team-owner Bobby Rahal, who will field Takuma Sato in the series, after

Josef Newgarden will be new to the "big cars" when he takes to the streets of St. Pete this weekend.

agreeing to transfer Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s second full-season Honda engine lease to SFHR. Otherwise, the team’s No. 67 Dallara would have been sidelined until the Month of May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Newgarden insisted team manager Mike O’Gara and crew chief Anton Julian made the best of a compressed schedule once the powerplant arrived.

“The only scramble was getting the engine in the car and trying to work through all of the difficulties with that,” Newgarden said during a recent teleconference. “We were good-to-go on the car side. We had been working on that for a couple of months before the engine showed up. The only thing we were lacking was the engine, and even when you do get the engine there is a lot that you have to go through from the electronic and ECU side just to figure out, and all the wiring.

“That’s really what took some time for us once we did receive it. Other than that, the chassis was ready to go. The team was ready to go. We’d been ready to leave the shop for quite some time. So working a couple of extra nights to get this thing ready for the Sebring test wasn’t too big of an issue for us.”

Newgarden, meanwhile, said his tenure in Indy Lights gave him a real-time glimpse of life as an IndyCar regular.

“It’s a little weird. But I thought it was pretty cool,” said Newgarden, a five-time winner last year for team-owner Schmidt’s juggernaut. “It’s been really fun learning the ropes, but then again not so different. I think the Firestone Indy Lights championship is a really good series that prepares you for everything that’s going to present itself for the IZOD IndyCar Series.”

In addition to five wins, Newgarden recorded three poles, 10 top-five and 13 top-10 finishes in 14 races. He was running at the finish in 13 of those, the exception being on the Streets of Long Beach, where late-race contact saddled him with a season-low 13th place result in an event in which he led 31 laps. In what rated as his signature performance, Newgarden started on-pole and led all 100 laps at New Hampshire Motor Speedway’s 1.025-mile oval on Aug. 14 on the way to winning his fifth race.

“With Firestone Indy Lights, you get to be surrounded by the entire paddock of IndyCar, so you’re kind of immersed in that world,” said Newgarden, a resident of Hendersonville, Tenn. “Aside from that, I think you learn what the race weekends are like. You’re traveling to the same tracks. You’ve got to learn all different types of circuits. You’re going to street circuits, road courses and ovals and all different types of ovals. You’re exposed to so many different elements that the IZOD IndyCar Series guys are that when you put everything together and you finally make it up that next step _ when you get in the ‘big car’ _ you can see that you’ve been trained really well, and you’re actually a bit more relaxed, I think.”

Formed in 2008 as Sarah Fisher Racing, SFHR celebrated its first IndyCar Series victory in 2011 with Ed Carpenter at Kentucky Speedway on Oct. 2. The Indianapolis-based team announced last December a partnership with businessman Wink Hartman, the hiring of Newgarden as its driver and plans to build a new race shop and offices in Speedway, Ind., in the shadows of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“I’m fired-up, they’re fired-up,” Newgarden said of his crew, “and we just want to have a good, clean run to start the season.”

Sunday’s season-opener in St. Pete will be the first IZOD IndyCar Series race run since the crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that took the life of two-time/reigning Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon on Oct. 16. He was 33-years-old.

Three weeks before the eighth annual race, Mayor Bill Foster and Susie Wheldon, Dan’s widow, unveiled a street sign at Turn 10 that designates it as Dan Wheldon Way. A few yards away, a permanent memorial honoring Wheldon will be erected this fall. It will contain the names of all winners of the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

The corner of Bayshore Drive and Albert Whitted Park – otherwise known as Turn 10 of the temporary street circuit – remains an appropriate spot to pay tribute to Wheldon. It was at Turn 10 where Wheldon overtook Ryan Briscoe, then driving for Target Chip Ganassi Racing, en route to victory in the inaugural IndyCar street race on April 3, 2005. Wheldon led a sweep of the top four positions for Andretti Green Racing, now Andretti Autosport. A few hours later, Wheldon jumped into Tampa Bay to celebrate. Seven weeks later, the native Englishman won the first of his two Indianapolis 500 titles _ the second coming last May 29 with Bryan Herta Autosport.

The 2005 series champion, Wheldon moved to St. Petersburg in ‘05. Wife Susie and young sons Sebastian and Oliver still call the community home.

“I want to take this opportunity to thank our St. Petersburg family for all the love and support the past several months,” Susie Wheldon said during the ceremony. “I am so proud and blessed to be able to call St. Petersburg home. I want to thank the city, the Honda Grand Prix and American Honda for recognizing Dan in such a special way. This is something that we can cherish for years to come. Sebastian and Oliver will be proud to know the impact their father had in this community and the world of motorsports.”

Mayor Foster recalled working with Wheldon as a member of the city’s Sports Alliance. “I know that Dan adored the personal relationship with each one of (the drivers),” Foster said. “I saw it in his eyes, I saw it in his actions and he told me so. His City of St. Petersburg, his adopted hometown, loved Dan Wheldon. Not as a driver, which was kind of cool, but we loved Dan Wheldon as a neighbor and somebody we could rely upon to do great things in sports. He was about so much more than racing.”

The new Dallara DW12 chassis, named in honor of test driver Dan Wheldon, features a hand clutch and two pedals – one each for the throttle and brake – on either side of the steering column. The setup requires IndyCar Series drivers to left-foot brake, which many have done in junior formulas and/or racing in Europe.

But four-time/reigning IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti of Target Chip Ganassi Racing equated the move to a right-handed tennis player or golfer being told to switch to playing left-handed. Franchitti said it’s “hard to unlearn” decades of muscle memory braking with his right foot. So upon request, Dallara designed a mechanical kit _ which will be produced for any driver who places an order _ that shifts the brake pedal to the right to provide right-foot braking, and is INDYCAR approved. No modifications were made to the chassis.

“It’s important to me that we got that done,” said Franchitti, who got acclimated to the configuration for the first time during the Open Test at Sebring International Raceway. “It makes a big difference driving the car. It will help me get just that last little bit and extract the maximum out of the car.

“A lot of other guys have made that transition over the years, but for performance purposes I felt the way I did it suited my style and it worked well for me. You can change it, but I felt I would have been at 95 percent. I think it would have taken a few more tests to get to where I was as a right-foot braker.

“For me and the team, it was easier to (ask for a change). It also gives us some advantages as a right-foot braker that I wasn’t ready to give up.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, March 21 2012
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