IndyCar Flashback: 2005 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

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Dan Wheldon wins the 2005 IRL race at St. Petersburg

For this week’s IndyCar Flashback, we take you back to 2005 and the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, a race that began as a trailblazing event for the Indy Racing League, but ended in a historic finish and the winner beginning to make his mark as a hero of the city’s streets.

Wheldon leads historic Andretti 1-2-3-4

Throughout its first nine years of existence, the Indy Racing League was known strictly as an oval-track series. The third race of the 2005 season would change that image. Two years after hosting the ChampCar season opener, the1.8-mile street circuit in St. Petersburg, Florida once again hosted open-wheel racing – this time as the first non-oval event in the IRL’s history.

Andretti-Green Racing continued their dominant season early on in the weekend, as Bryan Herta clinched his first pole in nearly five years for the historic race. His teammates, 2004 champion Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti would start third and fourth, with their teammate and Homestead-Miami race winner Dan Wheldon starting in ninth.

Herta would lead the first 16 laps of the race until relinquishing the lead to the Ganassi duo of Ryan Briscoe and Darren Manning for the next 22 laps. Herta then took the lead for 23 laps on lap 39, the longest stretch any driver would be out front during the 100-lap race.

Franchitti and Wheldon would each lead one lap more before Briscoe led 24 of the next 28 laps and seemingly had the race in hand.

A battle between Briscoe and Kanaan with ten laps to go resulted in the two drivers colliding in turn 10, handing the lead to Wheldon. Briscoe, despite a dominant performance down the stretch, would finish nine laps down in 15th following the crash.

Briscoe and Kanaan’s misfortune turned out to be the break Wheldon needed. With Briscoe was out of the race and Kanaan fading following the collision, Wheldon would lead the final nine laps en route to his second victory of the season and fifth of his career.

Kanaan would recover from his brush with Briscoe to finish second, with Franchitti placing third and Herta rounding out the historic Andretti-Green 1-2-3-4 finish. The Grand Prix of St. Petersburg would be a sign of things to come for not only Wheldon and Andretti Green, but the Indy Racing League as a whole.

Analysis

Almost 13 years later, the 2005 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg still holds a significant place in IndyCar history. Take a look at the fallout for the event and its headliners following that day.

Dan Wheldon
2005 became the year where Emberton, England’s Dan Wheldon made his mark in mainstream America’s sport setting. Six wins in 17 races, including the 2005 Indianapolis 500, cemented the 27-year-old as a star in IndyCar racing. His spectacular 2005 season catapulted him to a ride with Target Chip Ganassi Racing- teaming with 2003 series champion Scott Dixon from 2006 to 2008 – winning six races and finishing no worse than fourth in the championship.

Wheldon then spent the next two years with Panther Racing and finished runner-up in both the 2009 and 2010 Indianapolis 500s. The next year left Wheldon without a full-time ride, though it presented Herta and Wheldon with the opportunity to team up again.

In May 2011, Wheldon piloted Herta’s car in the Indianapolis 500. Wheldon would win his second Indy 500 when leader J.R. Hildebrand (driving the Panther Racing machine Wheldon left) crashed in turn four on the race’s final lap.

Castroneves at St. Petersburg in 2012

Helio Castroneves pays tribute to Wheldon after winning at St. Petersburg in 2012.

Sadly, it would be Wheldon’s last win. The 33-year-old would be killed in a 15-car pileup during the season finale at Las Vegas in October of that year.

The 2012 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg would see one of the most emotional tributes to Wheldon. After winning the race, Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves performed his signature fence-climb in turn 10, right next to the newly named Dan Wheldon Way.

The gesture was an appropriate tribute, considering Wheldon had made St. Petersburg his home, residing there with his wife and two sons.

Andretti Green Racing
Between 2003 and 2007, Andretti Green Racing dominated the Indy Racing League, winning three of five series championships, 31 races and two Indianapolis 500s. The 1-2-3-4 finish, the first of its kind in American open-wheel competition, is undoubtedly one of the most memorable moments of the team’s – and owner Michael Andretti’s – IndyCar history.

Grand Prix of St. Petersburg
Of the three road courses on the 2005 IRL IndyCar Series Schedule, St. Petersburg was the lone event to take place on a temporary street circuit. An event on the Belle Isle circuit in Detroit would return after a five-year absence in 2007, and the series would add more street circuits when ChampCar and the IRL IndyCar Series were reunified following a 12-year split in early 2008.

The reunified schedule would eventually feature hallmarks of IndyCar racing’s past, like Long Beach and Toronto. Added to the 2008 schedule was the Edmonton Airport circuit and street circuits were added in in numerous cities from Houston to São Paulo.

Aside from Long Beach and Toronto, none have quite had the staying power as St. Petersburg. The city’s 14th race on March 11th will not only add to a remarkable run, but also mark a new era. The Dallara DW12 will debut a new aero kit.

Driving a car named in Wheldon’s honor, many within the paddock will have the late driver on their minds throughout the weekend. Many in the IndyCar community share several great memories of Wheldon, but his 2005 victory at the street circuit will certainly be near the top.

Images courtesy of IndyCar and the Associated Press.

Spencer Neff

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