Hildebrand scores first pole at St. Petersburg

J.R. Hildebrand will start from the pole position in the first of two Indy Lights races at St. Petersburg this weekend. Hildebrand who made 18 starts in the Indy Lights Series over the last two years earned his first pole with a lap at 1 minute ...

J.R. Hildebrand will start from the pole position in the first of two Indy Lights races at St. Petersburg this weekend. Hildebrand who made 18 starts in the Indy Lights Series over the last two years earned his first pole with a lap at 1 minute 7.7704 seconds around the 1.8 mile street circuit.

"You can't start a season much better," said Hildebrand. "We had a really good session. It was a little bit broken up because the cars were really slipping around, because the track hasn't really gripped up after the rain. I think I went out too aggressive, because I remembered how the track was last year at the end of the day. I had to tone it down a little bit because I actually knocked the wall a little with my first set of tires. But I got it all together and was able to put in a good lap at the end."

The Indy Lights Series has a new qualifying format for street circuits in 2009. Teams will be split into two groups with the fastest overall time determining the race's polesitter. The fastest car from the non pole-winning group will occupy the other front-row starting spot with the remainder of the polesitter's group occupying the odd positions, while the outside polesitter's group will make up the even positions.

"With 28 cars entered for our races, we felt like this was the fairest way for everyone to have a chance to compete for pole," said Tony Cotman, vice president of competition for the Indy Racing League.

Junior Strouss set the 14th fastest lap in qualifying but he was the fastest driver in the second group, placing him outside the pole position for the start of Saturday's race. "Qualifying was only 20 minutes, and we had two long full-course yellows," Strouss said. "I was up front right away, and then we had three more minutes to go, so it was do- or-die. On the second-to-last lap, I had a guy in front of me, so I did a do-or-die move to pass him, because I knew the last lap had to be perfect. The last lap was amazing. It felt really good. It's good to be up front."

Sebastian Saavedra will start third despite qualifying nearly a second faster than Strouss. Saavedra, who is Hildebrand's teammate at AFS/Andretti Green is making his series debut.

"Today's qualifying was unbelievable," said Saavedra. "Since I have never been on this track, I didn't know what to expect. We went out this morning and it was raining, so it was hard to really learn the track, but then we went back out after the rain had cleared and I did. I was P1 at one point and then spun out at the last turn, but my teammate (J.R. Hildebrand) got the pole, so I'm very happy for him and his crew."

James Davison returns to the Indy Lights Series with Vision Racing this season. Last year Davison earned one pole at Nashville and scored a victory at Mid-Ohio while driving for Sam Schmidt Motorsports. Davison, who will start fourth, said "it's been a challenging day with practice this morning being wet and then going into qualifying with an unknown setup. In my qualifying session, we were all sliding around a lot and struggling for overall grip. It's a good starting position for the race but we need to do some work tonight to make sure we are competitive in qualifying tomorrow for the second race."

James Hinchcliffe was the fastest of the four drivers entered by Sam Schmidt Motorsports. Hinchcliffe will start fifth.

"I don't think you can ever be satisfied with your qualifying unless you're sitting on the pole," said Hinchcliffe. "For us, it was a very difficult sort of day because we had the rain in the morning practice, and then it was dry during the afternoon qualifying. As a result, we had to learn the track along with qualify at the same time in only 10 laps or so. For me, having never been here, that was a pretty tall order. I guess maybe we shouldn't be too disappointed with our overall position, but at the same time, I think we missed a little bit on the setup on the car. I'm actually confident that if we can get it sorted that we'll be a challenger for the pole in qualifying for the second race."

Hinchcliffe is one of two rookies at Sam Schmidt Motorsports this season. Gustavo Yacaman is the team's second rookie. Ana Beatriz returns for her second year with Schmidt while former series champion Wade Cunningham will compete in a fourth car.

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About this article
Series Indy Lights
Drivers Sam Schmidt , James Davison , Junior Strous , James Hinchcliffe , Sebastian Saavedra , J.R. Hildebrand , Ana Beatriz , Gustavo Yacaman