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Race fans gear up for a busy weekend of racing in St. Petersburg

The Grand Prix of St. Petersburg features many different sorts of racing-slide0
Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

In one of racing’s most picturesque settings, the 2014 racing season really starts to heat up as the streets of St. Petersburg are turned into a high speed racecourse for the Verizon IndyCar Series, the Pirelli World Challenge Championships, and the Formula Off-Road Presented by Traxxas. The twisting, tight confines of St. Petersburg have lent themselves to fascinating races in the past, and this year's events on the 14-turn, 1.8-mile temporary racing circuit should be no different.

With the city skyline and adjacent Tampa Bay providing a scenic backdrop, the diverse racing series will each face their own unique blend of challenges and opportunities in the Florida sunshine. The streets of St. Petersburg, Fla. will see the next chapters written in the now-25-year history of the Pirelli World Challenge Championships, with Rounds 1 and 2 and the Cadillac Grand Prix of St. Petersburg brought to you by StopTech Brakes. The street circuit will feature action for the GT/GT-A/GTS categories of competition.

A host of familiar names are joined by a wealth of promising newcomers, either in the form of new drivers, teams, manufacturers or cars. The full integration of FIA GT3-spec cars has provided a plethora of new manufacturer interest in GT for the 2014 Pirelli World Challenge season.

Johnny O'Connell repeated as Pirelli World Challenge GT champion after a dramatic comeback victory in the 2013 season finale at Reliant Park in Houston. He'll begin the quest for the three-peat at a track where he's only won once previously in series competition (2012). Teammate Andy Pilgrim, of Boca Raton, Fla., in the No. 8 Cadillac Racing Cadillac CTS-V.R, hasn't left many boxes unchecked over the course of his Pirelli World Challenge career, but he hasn't won in 11 prior starts at this circuit.

The two drivers that did win the St. Petersburg 2013 races are back for 2014, looking for an encore performance. Alex Figge, of Denver, won the opening Round 1 with James Sofronas, of Villa Park, Calif., taking the first Pirelli World Challenge win for the Audi R8 platform in Round 2. Sofronas will drive the No. 14 GMG Racing Audi R8 Ultra. Sofronas' win at St. Petersburg was one of three he achieved in 2013. He came up just shy of the 2013 GT championship to O'Connell, but looks to go one better in 2014.

Another big name returning to St. Petersburg is Tomas Enge, who raced in the 2005 IndyCar Series event at St. Petersburg and has a litany of Formula One and sports car experience. Enge, of Liberec, Czech Republic, will make his series debut in the No. 25 Reiter Engineering Lamborghini Gallardo FL2.

With more than half the entries of the St. Petersburg total, the Pirelli World Challenge GTS class of 27 cars could be anyone's game this weekend. But the top three drivers from 2013 all return, and may have an early edge on the rest of the field.

Defending series and three-time Pirelli World Challenge champion Lawson Aschenbach, of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. makes the switch to the number 1 aboard his Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro. Aschenbach is a past St. Petersburg race winner and looks to improve on his 2013 finishes of fifth and second.

Tony Gaples, of Libertyville, Ill., returns in the No. 11 Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro and Buz McCall, of Boca Raton, Fla., will drive the No. 72 RESET-MD/StopTech/Motul Porsche Cayman S for GTSport Racing with Goldcrest.

An iconic racing name joins Pirelli World Challenge in 2014, as ROUSH Road Racing enters the series with Jack Roush Jr. of Livonia, Mich., driving the No. 60 ROUSH Road Racing Ford Mustang Boss 302R. Roush and Ford are synonymous, and Jack Jr. will be one to watch in 2014, starting in St. Petersburg.

Always Evolving Racing returns with two Ford Mustang Boss 302S's, in the form of Erik Davis, of Burbank, Calif. in the No. 75 Always Evolving Racing/Autotopia, LLC Ford Mustang Boss 302S and David Sterckx, of Brussels, Belgium, in the No. 52 Always Evolving Racing/Autotopia, LLC Ford Mustang Boss 302S, a Rally America champion. The team continues in tribute to the late Roger Rodas, who passed away at the end of 2013.

But Chevrolet also has strength in numbers this year too, beyond Blackdog and Best IT. Breathless Performance steps up to GTS, with 16-year-old phenom Ernie Francis Jr., of Davie, Fla., in the team's No. 98 Breathless Performance Chevrolet Camaro. Francis Jr. won a Touring Car B-Spec class-high seven races in 2013, and finished third as series rookie-of-the-year.

Fernando Seferlis, of Miami Lakes, Fla., also steps up from TCB in the No. 29 Compulab-Panama Chevrolet Camaro. Breathless has a third car entered for GTS veteran Mark Klenin, of Lonetree, Col., in the No. 62 Premiere Copier/SCHOMP Aston Martin Vantage GT4.

In addition to the pro categories, the GT-A subcategory makes its first appearance. New for 2014, the GT-A division is open to gentlemen drivers in GT-spec cars, with the driver scoring the most points at year's end winning both the Sportsman's Cup and a new B.R.M Chronograph.

Sofronas' GMG team has three cars entered in GT-A. Bill Ziegler, of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., stepped up to GT midway through 2013, and GT-A will be a great fit for the driver of the No. 95 Swisher Racing/GMG Audi R8 Ultra. Bret Curtis, of Austin, Texas, will be in the No. 32 GMG Racing Audi R8 Ultra. He made five 2013 starts, with a best result of fifth in Long Beach. Rookie Andrew Palmer, of Chicago, will make his series debut in the No. 21 GMG Racing Audi R8 Ultra.

DragonSpeed and R. Ferri, which both have GT class programs, also have a Ferrari apiece entered in GT-A. Henrik Hedman, of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. but originally of Sweden, will be in the No. 10 DragonSpeed Ferrari 458 Italia GT3. Nick Mancuso, of Chicago, will drive R. Ferri's No. 16 Ferrari Lake Forest Ferrari 458 Italia GT3.

Qualifying for the Cadillac Grand Prix of St. Petersburg brought to you by StopTech Brakes takes place on Saturday, March 29, at 8:00 a.m. EDT. Race one takes the green flag on Saturday, March 29 at 3:25 p.m. EDT, with race two getting underway on Sunday, March 30 at 11:25 a.m. EDT. The timed events last 50 minutes each, and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network Sunday, April 6 at 5:30 p.m. EDT, with a live internet telecast also available.

On Sunday, March 30, the Verizon IndyCar Series opens their 2014 season with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. The green flag will fly at 3:27 p.m., and will feature the stars of the Verizon IndyCar Series chasing the checkered flag for 110 laps.

The new season looks to be one of IndyCar’s most intriguing with a deep and competitive field of drivers and cars. Motorsports broadcasting veteran Allen Bestwick will begin his first season as ESPN on ABC’s lead announcer for the IndyCar Series at St. Petersburg, joined in the booth for analysis by former series drivers Scott Goodyear and Eddie Cheever. Goodyear is starting his 13th season as an analyst and Cheever his seventh.

The coverage team at St. Petersburg also will include pit reporters Rick DeBruhl, Jamie Little and Vince Welch. Terry Lingner will produce the telecast and Bruce Watson will direct.

The popular “Side-by-Side” feature, used in IndyCar Series telecasts since first introduced by ESPN in 2005, will continue in 2014. During national commercial breaks, a split screen format showing the advertisement on one side and racing action on the other allows viewers to not miss anything that might happen on the track during the break.

In addition to television in the United States on ABC, ESPN also distributes Verizon IndyCar Series race telecasts through a combination of ESPN networks and syndication to more than 197 countries and 96 million homes. In addition, U.S. troops serving overseas and on Navy vessels around the world can watch live via a broadcast agreement between ESPN and the American Forces Network.

ABC will have a live telecast of the event, with pre-race at 3 p.m. ET.

Formula Off-Road Presented by Traxxas will begin its second season of competition March 28-30 at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in conjunction with the IndyCar Series. The trucks will race five times with IndyCar in 2014 at a number of the series’ most popular venues including St. Petersburg, Long Beach, Indianapolis, Detroit and Toronto. Stand-alone Formula Off-Road Presented by Traxxas events will take place at Orange County, California’s Sand Sport Super Show, the Coronado Speed Festival in San Diego and along the Las Vegas Strip while the mega-SEMA show is in town in November.

The Stadium Super Trucks that race in the series will hit huge man-made ramps at more than 100 mph at multiple locations throughout each of the circuits hurling drivers nearly 20 feet in the air and 150 feet down course. Robby Gordon created the series to bring the excitement of Baja-style desert racing to large crowds of race fans and with a revamped and expanded schedule for 2014 the Series expects to race in front of more than 750,000 fans in addition to its television audience.

The series features identically prepared trucks which are made to resemble their scaled-down Traxxas radio-control-car counterparts. Like their Traxxas namesake, the trucks are designed to take flight. However, unlike RC trucks, they produce 600 horsepower generating speeds upwards of 130 miles per hour.

“The goal is to provide equal equipment to all the drivers and let driver skill and not engineering budgets determine the winner,” former IndyCar and NASCAR star Robby Gordon. “This is what racing should be. The trucks are amazing but it’s about skill and not money that puts on a great show for the fans.

Gordon founded the SPEED Energy Formula Off-Road Presented by Traxxas series in late 2012, and ran its first race in March 2013 in Phoenix, Ariz. The series has built more than 20 identically prepared Stadium Super Trucks that have all the characteristics of an off-road “Baja-style” truck capable of racing on dirt, asphalt or even snow.

“When I was still racing in NASCAR people always asked me why I still drove off-road, and they were surprised when I told them that I raced in NASCAR so that I could race off-road. Off-road racing gets in your blood and it’s where I started. It has always been my first love and it’s the most unbelievable form of motorsport in the world and we’re trying to do our part to make it mainstream.”

While the concept of building and maintaining an affordable racing series with an even playing field can be credited completely to Gordon, the theory behind the series is not entirely original. From the early 1980s through 1996 the Mickey Thompson Stadium Truck Series featured races in football and baseball stadiums primarily in the western United States.

“Not only is it one of the most awesome forms a racing in the world, for drivers and teams it’s about the most affordable professional racing series you can be involved with,” Gordon said. “In 2014 we will race in front of something like 750,000 people, have eight hours of exposure on NBC Sports Network and will race live on ESPN at X Games Austin.”

The franchise format created for the Stadium Super Trucks makes business sense for drivers and marketers knowing that they don't have to outspend other teams to be competitive. Each week the series builds, maintains and delivers race-ready trucks to competitors which eliminates start-up costs and day-to-day overhead of running a team. A driver’s focus is on winning races and delivering for their sponsors.

“I loved my time in IndyCar and NASCAR but it costs a lot of money to be competitive in either one of those series which means a lot of capable drivers have some fairly difficult barriers to entry,” Gordon said. “Those series will continue to thrive based on many years of success and a proven business plan and incredible fan support. What we have created is an opportunity for drivers to race in front of hundreds of thousands of fans and a tremendous platform for sponsors."

Rounds 1 and 2 of the second season of SPEED Energy Formula Off-Road Presented by Traxxas begins Saturday at 12:30 p.m. when 10 identically prepared trucks participate in the first race of the 2014 season. The starting lineup for Saturday’s race was determined from lap times in Friday’s only practice session. Following the practice session, a blind draw was held which determined that four rows of the five-row field would be inverted, meaning Peoria, Arizona’s Scotty Steele will start from pole alongside series rookie Gavin Harlien from Mesa, Ariz.

Row two will consist of IndyCar veteran Davey Hamilton from Nampa, Idaho and Robby Gordon from Orange, Calif., row three will feature Scottsdale, Arizona’s PJ Jones and Alpine, California’s Jerett Brooks, row four will be Justin Lofton of Westmorland, Calif., and Sheldon Creed of Alpine, Calif. The final row will be the single truck of Apdaly Lopez from Tecate, B.C., Mexico.

Quick time from Friday’s session was set by Creed, followed by Lofton, Brooks, Jones, Gordon, Hamilton, Harlien, Steele and Lopez.

For fans who aren't able to attend the race, it can be seen on NBCSN on Thursday, April 18 at 1 a.m. EDT.

The West Palm Beach Motorsports Examiner wishes all the competitors in St. Petersburg good luck in dealing not only with the tricky circuit, but the unpredictable Florida weather. Hopefully the traffic in Pinellas County will only be a problem on the surface streets, and not on the racecourse!

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