Race Weekend Central

Open Wheel Archive: The 2005 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

Younger fans of IndyCar may not remember, owing to the current calendar composition, a time when the series was a strictly oval-based endeavor. That changed in 2005.

At the time, what we now know as the NTT IndyCar Series was still in its era known as “the Split.” Indy racing existed in two distinct forms, the Indy Racing League (IRL) and the Champ Car World Series (CCWS), which had evolved from Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART). Since declaring its split from CART, home of Indy racing since the late 1970s, in 1994 and launching its first season in 1996, the IRL had been an ovals-only series looking to counter CART’s increasingly road course-focused rotation.

That history aside, the IRL existed in this manner until 2005, when three road courses were added to the schedule.

The season began in at the Homestead-Miami Speedway as had been the case the year prior, followed by Phoenix Raceway. Third on the schedule was St. Petersburg, boasting a street circuit which had been used by the Champ Car World Series (a successor to the by-then-defunct CART) in 2003. Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International occupied the 14th and 16th slots, respectively.

Entering the weekend of St. Pete, it was less than clear how this experiment would play out for the series. Some drivers, such as Sam Hornish Jr., had not competed outside of oval racing for the better half of a decade. Others, like Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta, were CART alumni with plenty of hours turning left and right under their belts. Expectations were wide and shaky.

Dan Wheldon and Hornish Jr. entered the weekend as the season’s two winners to that point, with Wheldon having won the opening race at Homestead and Hornish fresh off a triumph at Phoenix. Herta sat on the pole, as he had done in Phoenix and Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan and Franchitti completed the first two rows on the grid.

Also present, as rookies, were Ryan Briscoe, Tomas Enge and Danica Patrick.

The 100-lap race came down to its final 10 laps without a clear favorite in sight. Briscoe, who had controlled a decent portion of the event, controlled the final restart of the day mounted a valiant defense against Kanaan, allowing Wheldon to hang closely to the top two. The window for the driver of the No. 26 opened with 9 to go when Briscoe turned in on Kanaan as the latter challenged to the inside of turn 10. Kanaan left the scene in one piece while Briscoe was planted in the tire barriers.

Kanaan survived the contact, but the brief break in momentum was enough to allow Wheldon to steal the lead from his teammate. Despite never getting more than 10 car lengths away from the Brazilian, Wheldon held on to take his second win of the season and cement his place as the IRL’s first road course winner.

Wheldon won, but he wasn’t a factor for the first half of the race. At the start, one has to imagine most of the field was just concerned with surviving the run to the green flag. To the amazement of commentators Todd Harris, Scott Goodyear and the late Gil de Ferran, the field made it through the first corner, and first lap, cleanly. Herta led from Kanaan and Castroneves as the field tried to find its groove on the cramped Florida streets. Impressively, it took 13 laps for this new territory to bite, which came in the form of Castroneves making a late dive on A. J. Foyt IV into turn 12. The resulting contact triggered the series’ first road course caution and subsequently its first road course restart.

At the helm was Briscoe, leading the first laps of his IndyCar career with Alex Barron and Patrick in tow. The New Zealander enjoyed a comfortable stint in the lead until Ed Carpenter brought out another caution for a single-car spin in turn 8, triggering another round of pit stops for Briscoe and those who had not pitted under the first caution.

When the pit cycle was complete, Herta regained his lead but was now being trailed by Wheldon, who had qualified ninth. Behind Wheldon was Franchitti, making it an Andretti Green Racing (now Andretti Global) 1-2-3 on track.

By this point the race had reached its halfway point and pit strategy was coming front-of-mind for the leaders. Herta blinked first and dove into the pits at the end of lap 63 along with Scott Dixon, who had been running fourth. Wheldon followed the next lap, handing the lead to Franchitti, who carried on just one lap longer than Wheldon.

Another was brought out when Tomas Scheckter planted his Panther Racing Chevrolet in the tire barriers at turn 8, bringing the race under caution until lap 83. Having gambled on getting to pit under caution late in the race, Chip Ganassi Racing drivers Briscoe and Darren Manning were able to restart in first and second with Wheldon, Kanaan and Dixon rounding out the top five. Kanaan immediately went on the offensive when racing resumed, passing Wheldon and Manning in quick succession to settle into second place behind Briscoe.

The final yellow flag of the day flew on lap 87 when Enge and Hornish Jr., collided in turn 4, setting up the 10-lap dash which ultimately sent Wheldon to victory lane; the Andretti Green cars provided IndyCar’s first 1-2-3-4 sweep by one team when the checkered flag fell.

The win was Wheldon’s fifth in his career, and the second of what would total six on the season. Momentum being infinitely important in a largely spec series like the IRL, Wheldon kept up his winning form by taking the top spot at the next race in Motegi, Japan, as well as in the following round, the Indianapolis 500. The Englishman sealed the deal on his only IndyCar title that season, before moving to Chip Ganassi Racing in 2006.

Despite finding some success in Ganassi colors from 2006-2008, the 2005 season proved to be the best in Wheldon’s career, following his breakout year in 2004 where he took three wins and 11 podiums in 16 races en route to a second-place points result behind Kanaan. By the time 2005 came to an end, nobody could dispute that Wheldon was there to stay.

See also
Callum Ilott Subbing for David Malukas at St. Petersburg

The first road course win for the series is noteworthy enough, but a new significance emerged for this win when Wheldon and his soon-to-be wife, Susie, moved to St. Petersburg later that year. By the time of Dan’s death, the couple had two sons, Sebastian and Oliver, who grew up in the city and are now both embarking on budding racing careers of their own; to “drive like daddy,” as Sebastian was quoted at the age of four.

Susie continued to live in the city where her husband had made history until at least 2021, before moving to Miami.

Following Wheldon’s tragic passing in the 2011 season finale at Las Vegas, the city of St. Petersburg paid homage to him by renaming the stretch of road connecting turns 10-11 of the circuit to Dan Wheldon Way. The name stands to this day and serves as a unique, humble reminder of the moment when Wheldon overtook his teammate en route to etching his name in the history of The Sunshine City.

What wasn’t immediately clear as this story played out was that the IRL, and eventually a reunified IndyCar, was about to head down the same path as CART, adding more and more road courses and street circuits until ovals were the clear minority on the schedule. Now, in nearly two decades later, the IndyCar calendar is dominated by twisty circuits and St. Petersburg has served as the season opener for many years.

The fanbase is fond of debating whether IndyCar should redirect focus toward ovals once more, or remain firm on its tilt toward road courses and street circuits. Wherever you stand on that, remember that IndyCar went down the path to its current schedule structure step by step, and first step, the first IndyCar street circuit race, belongs – and will always belong – to Dan Wheldon.

About the author

Alex is the IndyCar Content Director at Frontstretch, having initially joined as an entry-level contributor in 2021. He also serves as Managing Director of The Asia Cable, a publication focused on the international affairs and politics of the Asia-Pacific region which he co-founded in 2023. With previous experience in China, Japan and Poland, Alex is particularly passionate about the international realm of motorsport and the politics that make the wheels turn - literally - behind the scenes.

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