Opening-day flourish bodes well for 2017 INDYCAR season

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ST. PETERSBURG, Florida – “Like the first day of school.” If that was heard once Friday at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, it was heard 17 times.

And it was like the first day of school. Verizon IndyCar Series teams have gathered a few times since September – for the postseason awards ceremony in Indianapolis, a couple of preseason media days early in 2017 – but they hadn’t burned rubber together all that much and certainly not much in earnest.

Oh, there was last month’s open test at Phoenix Raceway and a few secondary groupings of cars such as recently at Sebring International Raceway, but the offseason had mostly been quiet. Until Friday, that is.

Finally, on a sunny, postcard-worthy day in central Florida, 21 car-and-driver combinations convened on the same patch of asphalt – new asphalt over most of the 14-turn, 1.8-mile street circuit, no less. And it was fun.

Marco Andretti had the fastest car in the first practice session, Scott Dixon had the fastest in the second. Dixon’s lap time of 1 minute, 2.5591 seconds stood as the quickest of the day, and he promptly shrugged it off as nothing to get excited about. It’s just practice, he said. Just Day 1 of practice.

Dixon is right in his suggestion there is little to be learned from the first 90 minutes of real-time action. But it’s worth noting that Honda powered four of the fastest five cars and six of the fastest eight. It’s something, though last year Chevrolet always seemed to save its speed for days starting with the letter “S.”

Still, there was something to celebrate. INDYCAR announced Friday that Chevrolet and Honda joined Dallara and Firestone in signing multiyear contracts. The importance of stability among the sport’s primary manufacturers cannot be undervalued.

Tony Kanaan opened his 20th season in the sport by showing his young-man game, posting the day’s third-fastest lap.

For the record, James Hinchcliffe drew the season’s first penalty; his car ran over an air hose during the afternoon practice. Will Power became the first Verizon IndyCar Series driver to hit the wall in practice; he did so early in the first practice. Later, Power noted the similarities between the start of the past two years. Almost the same lap of the day and nearly the same location (this one was Turn 10).

“Yeah, it was about the same lap I did it last year,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. Got in the wall again.”

Power ought to have mixed feelings about what happens next. Last year, he won the pole the next day despite feeling the effect of a recent illness. He wasn’t allowed the start the race, costing him a good chance at a considerable number of points.

Takuma Sato’s 2017 didn’t get off to a good start. He locked the brakes approaching Turn 13 and couldn’t get his new Andretti Autosport ride stopped in time. That pounding of the concrete barrier was every bit as fierce at it seemed. He was not injured, but he surely felt that hit.

There were other things to like about Friday, not the least of which was the interest of the fan base. The venue saw a busy midway and live online streaming of Verizon IndyCar Series and Mazda Road to Indy sessions on Facebook was consumed by 157,000 unique users and generated more than 1.3 million impressions.

INDYCAR ended its first official day by hosting a welcome party at the Mahaffey Theater, which sits inside the circuit. Attendance was high, the optimism for a strong season higher yet.

How will the “school year” go? INDYCAR is beginning to find out.

From the fans