Jacob Abel on track at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg ((Photo Courtesy of Penske Entertainment – Chris Owens)

By Steve Wittich

Jacob Abel, who already has 15 races on his 2023 resume, set the quickest lap of the first practice in the newly rebranded INDY NXT by Firestone series.

The 21-year-old, who finished third in the Formula Regional Oceania Championship, set a quick lap of 66.3288 seconds.

“It was really good,” said the Butler University student. “This Firestone tire is going to be really, really interesting. We didn’t get much time on it in the preseason, so I think a lot of people are going to be learning as the year goes on. Definitely off to a good start, and we’ll see if we can keep it up.”

Less than a half-second covered the top 11 cars.

When practice started, the ambient temperature was 83F, and the track temperature was 113F.

The first red flag of practice came out only five minutes into the session when HMD Motorsports veteran Christian Rasmussen and his No. 6 HMD Motorsports w/Dale Coyne Racing machine nosed into the tire barrier in Turn 4.

Rasmussen told INDYCAR Radio’s Ryan Myrehn that he lost the rear under braking.

Green flag conditions returned with 33 minutes remaining, but it wasn’t for long before another veteran brought out the red flag four minutes later.

This time, it was INDY NXT by Firestone pole sitter from St. Petersburg last year, Hunter McElrea (Andretti Autosport), who made heavy contact at the exit of Turn 3. The No. 27 had a tank slapper at corner entry, which he caught, before losing it and pounding the wall with the left front first and left rear second. He got of the car under his own power.

After the incident, TSO caught up with McElrea, and he told us that the car bottomed over the new bumps in Turn 3, and that there was nothing he could do about it.

The car sustained heavy damage, but the Andretti Autosport was working hard to get the car put back together for Saturday morning’s second practice session.

Both drivers were checked and released by INDYCAR medical.

With substantial clean-up and wall repair required from the AMR INDYCAR Safety Team, the track was quiet for 11 minutes, with the green flag being shown with 19 minutes remaining.

Rasmussen still topped the timing screens at that point of the practice, but that was about to change as drivers got into a groove.

Kyffin Simpson (HMD Motorsports) was the first driver to go quicker, and Juncos Hollinger Racing rookie Matteo Nannini was the first driver to go under 67 seconds.

Lap times continued to fall, with eight drivers under 67 seconds with five minutes remaining.

Jacob Abel (Abel Motorsports) was the quickest of the group, with Danial Frost, Nolan Siegel, Enaam Ahmed and Louis Foster in the top five.

The track remained green for the final 19 minutes. Despite the early problems for the two veterans, drivers did continue to push with the Turn 4 (Jamie Chadwick, Jagger Jones, James Roe, Jr. & Louis Foster), Turn 8 (Ernie Francis, Jr.) and Turn 10 (Christian Bogle & Matteo Nannini) run-offs all having multiple visitors.

INDY NXT by Firestone Grand Prix Of St. Petersburg practice results

151Jacob AbelAbel Motorsports1:06.3288——21
239Nolan SiegelHMD Motorsports1:06.36520.036422
310Rasmus LindhHMD Motorsports1:06.43860.109818
468Danial FrostHMD Motorsports1:06.50380.175022
521Kyffin SimpsonHMD Motorsports1:06.52320.194422
63Josh GreenHMD Motorsports1:06.53110.202322
799Ernie Francis Jr.HMD Motorsports1:06.54490.216119
847Enaam AhmedCape Motorsports1:06.63060.301818
926Louis FosterAndretti Autosport1:06.68240.353617
107Christian BogleHMD Motorsports1:06.73250.403721
1175Matteo NanniniJuncos Hollinger Racing1:06.73320.404420
1276Reece GoldJuncos Hollinger Racing1:06.88160.552820
1357Colin KaminskyAbel Motorsports1:06.91270.583917
1414Josh PiersonHMD Motorsports1:07.10380.775020
1529James RoeAndretti Autosport1:07.24150.912717
166Christian RasmussenHMD Motorsports1:07.92341.59462
1728Jamie ChadwickAndretti Autosport1:08.01121.682421
1898Jagger JonesCape Motorsports1:08.35082.022018
1927Hunter McElreaAndretti Autosport1:12.51426.18544

The second INDY NXT by Firestone practice is tomorrow at 9 am.