Junior Strous delivered a victory on his Firestone Indy Lights Series debut at the opening round of both a St. Petersburg doubleheader and the 2009 season. Strous, who started second, passed pole sitter and prior dominant force J.R. Hildebrand on a lap 23 restart to set sail to the win in the 40- lap race.
"This victory means so much, especially since we are a new team, Winner's Circle Group Racing," said Strous. "We only had one day of testing, and the guys worked so hard to get this together. I'd like to thank the crew and all of the sponsors for making this possible."
"I think I had a legendary take-over maneuver in Turn 1, which kudos to J.R. Hildebrand, who did some great driving to give the space and not crash," Strous added.
"A big thank you to Junior Strous," said his team owner Paul Diatlovich. "This is like a breath of fresh air after the last couple years."
Hildebrand fell to fourth in the exchange but recovered to a podium position by the checkers, adrift of race winner Strous and runner-up Jonathan Summerton. Ana Beatriz and Jay Howard completed the top five.
"After the second yellow the car wasn't pulling off the top end down the straight," Hildebrand said. "I had a tough time getting into sixth gear. It turns out that we had a battery going dead. That just held me up down the straights. I was kind of a sitting duck."
Strous, who hails from The Netherlands, is the seventh driver to win his inaugural Indy Lights start.
"It was a tough race," Strous said. We had a not so good start. The tires weren't warmed up yet, so I lost two positions on the start and then managed to gain another three. It was amazing."
Hildebrand took the lead from the green flag, his AFS/Andretti Green Racing teammate Sebastian Saavedra in tow with Strous falling to fourth behind James Davison in a Vision Racing entry.
The first caution flag erased Hildebrand's seven-second lead to Davison. Saavedra didn't help his teammate by bringing out the yellow, with a couple spins and an apparent suspension breakage ending his race. He finished 26th in the 27-car field.
Dropping back on restarts became an issue, and the first to be caught out was Davison on the ensuing green flag. He dropped back to eighth after restarting second. First Strous, then Summerton and the Sam Schmidt Motorsports teammates of Beatriz and James Hinchcliffe, all put Davison out to pasture as the Australian struggled with handling issues.
It was Hildebrand's turn to fall back next. The second full-course caution, for debris in turn one, caught out the Sausalito, Calif. native and presumptive championship and race favorite. Strous snuck by Hildebrand at turn one and before long Summerton and Beatriz followed suit.
Beatriz and Hildebrand were engaged in a great battle for third from there on out as Strous and Summerton opened a gap.
"I think we had a quicker car, but in the end, following him was a little rough," said Summerton. "I lost some of the downforce on the car. All-in- all, I'm quite happy with second place."
On lap 34, Beatriz, who had been spun from the lead at turn one at this event last season, fell victim to the marbles that had caught out many drivers in this race. Her car slipped out of the groove allowing Hildebrand an opportunity to come through to regain third.
"We had amazing restarts today," said Beatriz. "Unfortunately, at the end, I lost the rear in (Turn 1) and Hildebrand passed me again. I couldn't see anything. My tear-offs were so dirty with oil and dirt and I missed a brake."
Veterans and rookies alike - Sean Guthrie, Logan Gomez, Brandon Wagner, Duncan Tappy and Sergey Mokshantsev come to mind - all spun at some point in turn one.
Two laps later after encountering slower traffic, a new opportunity presented itself for Beatriz. She retook the position from Hildebrand into turn one but just as quickly washed out again, and Hildebrand pulled the cross-under move in this case to regain third.
It stayed that way to the flag. Howard made a late-race pass of Hinchcliffe for fifth, as the former series champion who now drives for Team PBIR, passed the car in which he scored the 2006 title.
Daniel Herrington, Davison, Mario Romancini and Charlie Kimball completed the top ten. Romancini and Kimball are respective teammates of Summerton and Howard, while Herrington's Bryan Herta Autosport operation has a technical partnership with Vision Racing.
Both Strous and Summerton had battled in Atlantic Championship competition last year but switched to Indy Lights for 2009.
Strous's team, the aptly-named Winners Circle Group, rose from the ashes of the former American Spirit Racing with former IndyCar Series team owner Diatlovich at the head. Summerton has signed to RLR Andersen Racing for this weekend's action but is not confirmed beyond that at this point.
A chance for redemption for those who struggled today occurs with the second half of the doubleheader tomorrow. It is the only two-race weekend of the season for Indy Lights, and a revised qualifying system saw a fresh session this morning to determine the starting grid, rather than the previous race's results with an inversion of the top finishers.
Saavedra scored pole, with Strous starting second as he did today. Hildebrand, Davison and Beatriz are in the top five in the race that begins at 10 A.M. ET.