James Hinchcliffe began defense of his win of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Feb. 24 by helping with the ceremonial start of the track build for the season-opening IndyCar Series race on March 30.
More than 20,000 feet of steel-reinforced concrete block will line the picturesque but challenging 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary street circuit that incorporates a runway of Albert Whitted Airport.
Hinchcliffe, who drives the No. 27 United Fiber & Data Honda for Andretti Autosport, was the seventh different winner in the nine years of the race. He went on to win twice more during the 19-race season and finish eighth in the championship standings.
"Obviously, with what happened last year, it holds a special place in my heart," the Toronto native said. "It was a very emotional day last year on race day for all the right reasons. That's nice because in racing you normally have very emotional days for the wrong reasons more often than you do for all the right ones. For me, personally, on track it made a big difference because when I was then in situations later in the year where a win was on the line I felt a lot less pressure because I think there was a big amount of pressure to get that first win.
"I think it really does free your mind up a little bit when you're in those circumstances, again knowing that, 'Hey, I've been here, I know I can do it, let's focus and get the job done,' rather than make yourself over-analyze and make a mistake."
It is the first year for Firestone as the entitlement sponsor of the 110-lap "Fastest Spring Break Party," though it has been the Turn 1 grandstand sponsor since the first race in 2005 -- the IndyCar Series' inaugural non-oval race. Firestone is the Official Tire Supplier of the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis 500.
"On behalf of Firestone, we couldn't be more proud to be the title sponsor," Bridgestone Americas director of motorsports Lisa Boggs said. "Racing is part of our company's heritage dating to the days of Harvey Firestone, who used racing to test the performance of our tires. That history continues today as the title sponsor of this great event."
2. Montoya battles himself first before rest of the field: Through a half dozen test sessions and a month before the season opens, Juan Pablo Montoya isn't looking at the depth of the field.
"Right now, I'm my biggest rival. I feel like a complete rookie right now," the 1999 CART champion and 2000 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race winner said. "Because I feel like I got to do a job, push myself. It's good to have a guy like Will (Power) on the team that's really quick and gets the job done. Helio (Castroneves) has a lot of experience. If I have my experience plus what they do, I think it's pretty good."
Montoya expects to win, and soon, but he doesn't expect the transition from stock cars to the IndyCar Series will be as smooth as his initial foray at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He led 167 of the 200 laps on the 2.5-mile oval in winning by 7.184 seconds over Buddy Lazier.
"The NASCAR one was one that it was like, 'Where the hell am I?' The cars were very different," he said. "There was a lot of movement. This is the opposite because in NASCAR the limit of the car is very easy. You can get to the limit of the car very easy. The big thing is you're driving it too hard. In IndyCar, you can't drive it hard enough, or at least I can't yet. I'm leaving a lot on the table. I think that's the biggest thing."
Team Penske announced that Hawk Performance will be the primary sponsor on the No. 2 car driven by Montoya for three races.