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Dixon Sets Pace In St. Pete

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 11 2017

Scott Dixon was fast driver during IndyCar Series practice at St. Petersburg, Fla. on Friday.

RacinToday.com

Four-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon handed Honda Opening Day bragging rights at the close of practice Friday for the 14th annual Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Dixon, of Target Chip Ganassi Racing, set the pace on the 1.8-mile/14-turn temporary clockwise street course that includes the Florida city’s downtown and a runway of Albert Whitted Airport. Dixon’s best lap of 1 minute, 2.5591-seconds/103.582 mph was recorded during the second of two practices.

“I think it started generally well,” said Dixon, driver of the No. 9 GE LED Lighting Honda for team-owner Ganassi, whose organization switched from Chevrolet’s twin-turbocharged V-6 powerplant during the offseason. “This weekend, the car, we’ve done some good homework in the offseason for ourselves, how the competition stacks up. I think (Saturday) will be interesting once the other competitors turn it up. We’ll have to see where it goes.”

Dixon enters Sunday’s season-opener with an impressive 40 series victories, ranking him fourth on the career list. “It’s Friday, it doesn’t pay anything, doesn’t mean anything,” said Dixon, a 36-year-old native of Auckland, New Zealand. “Hopefully what we learned today, we can continue on and help improve the car come Saturday and, more importantly, for the race on Sunday.”

Practice continues Saturday morning during a final, 45-minute session ahead of knockout qualifying at 2:55 p.m. (EST) to determine the Verizon P1 Award winner for pole position. A live video stream of practice and qualifying is available at RaceControl.IndyCar.com. Sunday’s 110-lap/198-mile race will air live at noon (EST) on ABC-TV and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

Two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Juan Pablo Montoya won last year’s event for Team Penske. Will Power of Team Penske qualified on-pole last March with a lap of 1:00.2350-seconds/107.561 mph.

Following Dixon _ a three-time runnerup on the Streets of St. Pete but never a race-winner at the circuit _ on the combined speed chart were: Power in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet (1:02.8416-seconds/103.116 mph); Tony Kanaan in the No. 10 NTT Data Honda (1:02.8545-seconds/ 103.095 mph) and Charlie Kimball in the No. 83 Tresiba Honda (1:02.8748-seconds/103.062 mph).

Reigning series champion Simon Pagenaud of Team Penske was ninth overall at 1:03.1462-seconds/ 102.619 mph.

“I think we made good progress throughout the sessions and collected a lot of good data,” said Pagenaud, driver of the No. 1 PPG Automotive Chevrolet. “There is more speed to find and I feel we’ll be able to do that and be ready for the qualifying session. It’s important to qualify well to make race day a little easier. It’s awesome to be at the track again for an actual event. The atmosphere here is tremendous.”

The afternoon practice was highlighted by a change in Verizon IndyCar Series rules this year that provides an extra set of the Firestone alternate tires to each entry on a race weekend. Teams now can run a set of the softer, red-sidewall tires in practice to gauge their performance characteristics compared to the harder, black-sidewall primary tires prior to qualifying.

“I think especially for newcomers maybe to the Verizon IndyCar Series, or rookies in general, it’s nice to feel how those tires come-in, the difference you can get from them,” said Dixon, whose fast lap was logged on the black-sidewall primary tires. “For the veterans, I don’t think it’s as much of an issue.”

The lone incidents of the day involved Power and new Andretti Autosport driver Takuma Sato, though neither was injured. Power saw the back end of his car step out and make wall contact in Turn 10 during the morning practice. Sato was on his first timed lap of the afternoon when his car jumped off track in Turn 13 and made hard contact with the wall.

Power, a six-time St. Pete pole-winner and two-time race-winner, was pleased to redeem himself in the afternoon session. “Yeah, it was about the same lap I did it last year,” said Power, who crashed in Friday morning practice in 2016 within three minutes of when he did Friday. “I couldn’t believe it, got in the wall again. It (was) a good session (in the afternoon), definitely made some progress on the car.”

Meanwhile, Turn 3 of the circuit has been reconfigured. The corner had been a fast, sweeping right-hander in recent years but INDYCAR officials _ in conjunction with Green Savoree Racing Promotions _ decided to make modifications after several cars competing in Thursday’s support series practices crested a bump and lost control in the ensuing depression.

Approximately 180 feet of wall on the drivers’ left side has been moved back almost 40 feet. On the right side, curbing has been installed, which changes the apex and makes the corner a slower, traditional braking area.

The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is the first of 17 races on the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule, and opens the season for the seventh straight year.

Manufacturers Chevrolet and Honda have signed multi-year contract extensions to supply engines for the Verizon IndyCar Series. Friday’s announcement by INDYCAR officials follows those earlier this year that chassis-maker Dallara and tire supplier Firestone also have signed multi-year extensions, meaning all four major manufacturers have committed to the open-wheel sport.

“This is a unique moment in the recent history of the Verizon IndyCar Series,” said Jay Frye, INDYCAR president of competition and operations. “To have all of our major manufacturers locked-in with us for the foreseeable future points to the fact that they all have bought into the vision for the Verizon IndyCar Series. It’s another sign of the positive momentum we continue to build as we grow this sport into the next decade.”

The alignment of all four manufacturers for multiple years is a key component of INDYCAR’s five-year plan for the Verizon IndyCar Series that Frye unveiled in January. Under the plan, aerodynamic regulations were frozen this season for the kits produced by Chevrolet and Honda in preparation for a universal aero kit to be used by all cars in 2018.

In keeping with INDYCAR’s 2017 theme of “NEXT,” confirming the two engine manufacturers for the future also lays the groundwork for attracting additional original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to the series.

“We have worked hard to harness the power of the paddock so we are all pulling together, and this is evidence of that,” Frye said. “The fact both Honda and Chevrolet are encouraging INDYCAR to attract additional OEMs to compete is a sure sign that we are on the same page.”

INDYCAR debuted initial renderings of the 2018 car look in January at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. In addition to being more aesthetically pleasing to the eye, the car will feature enhanced safety through the reduction of aero parts on the top of the car. Additional downforce will be created from underneath the car and less drag off the back of the car, creating even better on-track competition. More details about the car and its look will be unveiled in coming weeks, with the goal of having it ready to test on-track this summer.

Television ratings and viewership of Verizon IndyCar Series races have increased 55 percent over the past three years, INDYCAR reported. Six events in 2016 generated record attendance, including the first announced sellout in the 100-race history of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

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All three levels of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires _ the sanctioned developmental ladder for INDYCAR _ open their 2017 seasons this weekend with doubleheader races on the Streets of St. Pete. Qualifying took place Friday.

Aaron Telitz won pole position for the first Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires race with a lap of 1 minute, 7.5844-seconds/95.880 mph in the No. 9 Belardi Auto Racing Mazda/Dallara IL-15. The 2016 Pro Mazda presented by Cooper Tires champion was nearly four-tenths of a second quicker than Kyle Kaiser in the No. 18 Juncos Racing entry.

In qualifying for the first Pro Mazda race, Anthony Martin _ who won last year’s Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship powered by Mazda title _ took honors with a lap of 1:13.6718-seconds/87.958 mph in the No. 8 Cape Motorsports Mazda. Victor Franzoni, driving the No. 23 Juncos Racing Mazda, was second at 1:13.6838-seconds.

USF2000 held qualifying for both of its weekend races, which will be run Saturday. Robert Megennis, in the No. 80 Team Pelfrey Mazda/Tatuus USF-17, took pole for the first race with a lap of 1:15.3708-seconds/85.975 mph. Parker Thompson, last season’s USF2000 runnerup, captured pole for the second race with a lap identical to the one Megennis clocked in first-race qualifying.

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The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series television schedule, with date, venue, network and broadcast window (all times ET; times subject to change):

March 12 _ Streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., ABC , noon-3 p.m.

April 9 _Streets of Long Beach, Calif., NBC Sports Network, 4-7 p.m.

April 23 _Barber Motorsports Park, Birmingham, Ala., NBCSN, 3-6 p.m.

April 29 _ Phoenix International Raceway, Avondale, Ariz., NBCSN, 9 p.m.-midnight

May 13 _ IndyCar Grand Prix, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, ABC, 3:30-6 p.m.

May 20 _ Indianapolis 500 Qualifying Day 1, IMS, ABC, 4-6 p.m.

May 21 _ Indianapolis 500 Qualifying Day 2, IMS, ABC, 4-6 p.m.

May 28 _ 101st Indianapolis 500, IMS, ABC, 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m.

June 3 _ Raceway at Belle Isle Park Race 1, Detroit, ABC, 3:30-6 p.m.

June 4 _ Raceway at Belle Isle Park Race 2, Detroit, ABC, 3:30-6 p.m.

June 10 _Texas Motor Speedway , Fort Worth, NBCSN, 8-11 p.m.

June 25 _Road America, Elkhart Lake, Wis., NBCSN, 12:30-3:30 p.m.

July 9 _Iowa Speedway, Newton, NBCSN, 5-8 p.m.

July 16 _Streets of Toronto, Canada, NBCSN, 3-6 p.m.

July 30 _ Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Lexington, Ohio, NBCSN, 3-6 p.m.

Aug. 20 _ Pocono Raceway, Long Pond, Pa., NBCSN, 2-6 p.m.

Aug. 26 _Gateway Motorsports Park, Madison, Ill., NBCSN, 9 p.m.-midnight

Sept. 3 _Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International, NBCSN, 1-4 p.m.

Sept. 17 _Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway, NBCSN, 6:30-9:30 p.m.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 11 2017
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