Dixon sets pace in St. Petersburg practice

ST. PETERSBURG, Florida (Friday, March 10, 2017) – The promise of a new Verizon IndyCar Series season gave 21 drivers a fresh start today in two practice sessions for the 14th Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

At the conclusion of the day, four-time series champion Scott Dixon set the pace on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary street course that encompasses St. Petersburg downtown streets and a runway of Albert Whitted Airport. Dixon’s best lap of 1 minute, 2.5591 seconds (103.582 mph) came in the second practice and was tops for the day.

“I think it started generally well,” said Dixon, driving the No. 9 GE LED Lighting Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. “This weekend, the car, we’ve done some good homework in the offseason for ourselves, how the competition stacks up. I think tomorrow will be interesting once the other competitors turn it up. We’ll have to see where it goes.

“It’s Friday, it doesn’t pay anything, doesn’t mean anything,” added Dixon, fourth on the Indy car career wins list with 40. “Hopefully what we learned today, we can continue on and help improve the car come tomorrow and, more importantly, for the race on Sunday.”

Following Dixon – a three-time runner-up in St. Petersburg but never a race winner at the circuit – on the combined speed chart were: Will Power in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet (1:02.8416, 103.116 mph), Tony Kanaan in the No. 10 NTT Data Honda (1:02.8545, 103.095 mph) and Charlie Kimball in the No. 83 Tresiba Honda (1:02.8748, 103.062 mph). Reigning series champion Simon Pagenaud was ninth overall at 1:03.1462 (102.619 mph).

The afternoon practice highlighted 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, I think 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. Petersburg pole winner and two-time race winner, was happy 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 today. “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.”

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. Practice continues at 10:50 a.m. ET Saturday for a final 45-minute session ahead of knockout qualifying at 2:55 p.m. to determine the Verizon P1 Award winner for the pole position. A live video stream of practice and qualifying is available at RaceControl.IndyCar.com.

Sunday’s 110-lap race airs live at noon ET on ABC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

Mazda Road to Indy qualifying

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. Qualifying took place today.

Aaron Telitz won the 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 (87.958) in the No. 8 Cape Motorsports Mazda. Victor Franzoni, driving the No. 23 Juncos Racing Mazda, was second at 1:13.6838.

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 (85.975 mph). Parker Thompson, last season’s USF2000 runner-up, captured the pole for the second race with a lap identical to the one Megennis clocked in first-race qualifying.