1. Montoya dons hard hat for St. Pete track construction: With just 31 days until on-track activity begins to officially kick off the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season, reigning Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg winner was in the city Feb. 9 to oversee beginning construction of the temporary street circuit for the March 11-13 event.
Montoya, who also won the 2015 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race and finished runner-up for the season championship by virtue of a tiebreaker, donned hard hats with St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and Green Savoree Promotions co-owners Kim Green and Kevin Savoree to commemorate the occasion.
The construction process is a carefully coordinated effort between city officials and Green Savoree to make detours as easy as possible for St. Petersburg locals leading up to race weekend. The strategy behind which areas of the track are built first depends on traffic flow. Construction begins in areas that are typically lower in traffic, such as Bay Shore Drive, where the ceremony took place, and concludes in areas closest to Albert Whitted Airport, where the track occupies one runway.
“All of us are anxious to kick off the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season and the construction is off to a great start,” Savoree said. “We couldn’t do it without our great partners that we have here to work with us to build the track, the great partners that we have with the city of St. Petersburg.”
Fresh off a red-eye flight from a Chevrolet test at Phoenix International Raceway, Montoya reminisced about his statement-making victory that kicked off his 2015 run for the title bid. With the scenery surrounding him featuring views of Tampa Bay, the Team Penske driver took a moment to appreciate the beauty that the drivers often miss as they speed around the 1.8-mile, 14-turn circuit.
“It’s very nice to be here in St. Petersburg and see the racetrack, see the city,” Montoya said. “The city is really pretty. Preparing for the first race is huge, last year was a great race for me and a great crowd. Hopefully we’ll have a great crowd and a great race weekend (this year) as well.”
The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg has been conducted since 2003 (with a year’s absence in 2004). It has been the season opener seven times, including every year since 2011. Several active drivers besides Montoya have claimed wins at the track, including his Team Penske teammates Helio Castroneves (three times) and Will Power (twice), as well as Graham Rahal and James Hinchcliffe (once each).
“It’s a great way to start the season,” Montoya said. “We do about three or four street courses a year and this is one of the most fun ones, for sure.”
2. Eidson joins Cape Motorsports with WTR for Pro Mazda season: Jake Eidson, who finished second in the 2015 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, will join Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing for the 2016 Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires.
Eidson, 20, will drive the No. 3 Rising Star Racing car on the second rung of the Mazda Road to Indy ladder. He has been the model of talent and consistency over the last two seasons, which includes six USF2000 wins and an amazing 25 top-five finishes in 30 starts. The impressive native of Littleton, Colo., has finished just one race outside the top 10 in two years of MRTI competition.
“I’m extremely grateful and excited to enter my first season of Pro Mazda and to rejoin Cape Motorsport with Wayne Taylor Racing,” Eidson said. “After finishing second in last year’s USF2000 championship, we weren’t sure if moving up to Pro Mazda was possible. When the season was over, we tested with the Capes and quickly knew that they have a winning team. Fortunately, we were able to make the 2016 season achievable. I know that my goal, as well as the team’s goal, is to aim for the top spot in the Pro Mazda championship and I have a lot of confidence in their ability to make it happen.”
3. Rahal and Force hit the Super Bowl 50 party trail: Verizon IndyCar Series driver Graham Rahal and his newlywed wife, NHRA driver Courtney Force, spent the weekend partying with the stars at Super Bowl 50.
The pair, arguably the fastest couple in the world – Rahal regularly pilots his Indy car at well over 200 mph and Force’s Funny Car speeds at more than 300 mph – were pretty much unstoppable Feb. 6 as they hit two of the hottest Super Bowl parties in San Francisco before cheering on Peyton Manning and his Denver Broncos to victory the next day.
“Defense wins championships, but my God, this is cool for Peyton. Great career, Champ,” Rahal tweeted after the Broncos beat the Carolina Panthers, 24-10, in Super Bowl 50 at Santa Clara, Calif.
Hours earlier, as he and Courtney reflected on their evening of party hopping, Rahal declared plans to make Super Bowl appearances an annual tradition.
“It’s fun to be a part of it and, as they say, see and be seen,” Rahal said. “It’s similar to the Indianapolis 500 in terms of pageantry, which is unique and cool.”
When Rahal and Force stopped at Maxim’s party on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, they were seated at Sardar Biglari’s head table, whose company controls Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing sponsors Steak ‘n Shake and Maxim. They weren’t far from megastar entertainer Justin Bieber and they ran into Nick Cannon.
“It was stage right, so we had the best seats in the house for everything,” said Rahal. “Courtney couldn’t stop drooling over Justin Bieber.”
Later, they made their way to Rolling Stone magazine’s event in San Francisco’s Design District, where two-time Grammy-nominated Elle King, recording artist Travis Scott and EDM producer Avicii performed. Thousands converged on the multi-level bash, which also drew to its red carpet Vince Vaughn (“True Detective”), Aaron Paul (“Breaking Bad”), musician Ed Sheeran, Snoop Dogg, January Jones (“Mad Men”) and New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.