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DEHARDE: IndyCar’s Hot Mess Express in St. Petersburg

Jack Harvey's car on the hook after an accident at the 2023 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
Jack Harvey's car on the hook after an accident at the 2023 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
Jack Harvey’s car on the hook after an accident at the 2023 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Photo courtesy of James Black/Penske Entertainment.

There’s no denying that IndyCar’s 2023 season opener on the streets of St. Petersburg was entertaining. But it was all to the detriment of the team owners and the drivers involved in the numerous crashes during the 100 laps run in the Florida sunshine.

Friday’s track action should have been a warning that crash bills for the weekend would be piled high by Sunday evening. Crashes in Indy NXT practice and several other sessions around Turn 3 led to some track work to repair some damage near a manhole cover that was coming loose.

Benjamin Pedersen and several IndyCar drivers had accidents that weren’t very large compared to what happened on Sunday, while the frequency of spins necessitated race control to use a local yellow procedure to restart stalled cars in runoff areas to keep the practice sessions running.

More incidents on Saturday in the MX-5 Cup and GT America races were not enough of a warning for the IndyCar field as their race started in earnest on Sunday to a massive crowd.

The race came to a halt almost as soon as it started after a nudge from Scott Dixon sent Felix Rosenqvist into the wall exiting Turn 2. The damage from that wall contact slowed the Swede’s car, starting a chain of events culminating in Devlin DeFrancesco’s car getting launched into the air and spinning around like a top before coming down to earth.

A red flag period lasting 19 minutes and 25 seconds allowed the safety crews to clear away all cars and debris from Turn 3 while the rest of the field mentally and physically reset themselves in pit lane.

The green flag came out again and the race progressed like a normal street race would, but a strategic mess was about to unfold for one driver in particular. Colton Herta lost second place to Pato O’Ward on Lap 25. On the following lap, the Californian fell several more positions before pitting, but the damage was done as his tires no longer had grip.

At the end of the first round of pit stops, Herta was running seventh. Halfway through the race, the No. 26 Andretti Autosport car was in the wall after contact with Will Power. This was on the restart after a caution for a crash involving Kyle Kirkwood, Rinus VeeKay and Jack Harvey.

For those keeping score, that’s three Andretti Autosport cars involved in accidents with Romain Grosjean still fighting up front for the lead of the race. That is, until his incident with Scott McLaughlin on Lap 72 for which the Kiwi graciously apologized in the Andretti Autosport part of the paddock after the No. 28 Honda could not continue.

After everything that took place in the race, Michael Andretti (and Michael Shank and A. J. Foyt, for that matter) needed to get out of St. Petersburg as fast as possible since all of their cars were involved in accidents. In Shank and Foyt’s cases, their cars were eliminated before even completing the first major timing sector of the track on the race’s first lap.

But the mess wasn’t quite over, yet. O’Ward led Marcus Ericsson as the pair approached the start/finish line for three laps to go. With slightly more than five miles to go in the race, the No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet suffered an engine issue described as a “plenum event” that momentarily cut power from the Mexican racer’s car. That allowed Ericsson to sweep around and pick up a lead he would not surrender for his fourth IndyCar win.

St. Petersburg was a hot mess for a lot of competitors. Many teams were left with broken machinery and a surplus of time wondering what could have been while the rest of the field circulated.

At least there’s enough time until Texas to get things fixed, since that race is four weeks after St. Petersburg.

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