Pato O'Ward sits next to his car

IndyCar’s greatest strength came out at St. Petersburg—and it wasn’t on track

There’s been constant discussion about the state of the NTT IndyCar Series, and near-constant comparison between IndyCar and Formula One. But a motorsports fan who wanted to see IndyCar’s biggest asset need only to watch the 2023 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, because after all the carnage, it came out in spades.

IndyCar returned to the streets of St. Petersburg with its biggest car count, a new alternate tire compound and some new paving between Turns 3 and 4. Those technical changes and the offseason team changes led to chaos as a third of the 27 cars didn’t finish the race and Kyle Kirkwood took more crash damage than Wile E. Coyote. In the aftermath—after Marcus Ericsson held steady to earn the first victory of the new season—was when the real stories emerged.

Romain Grosjean was visibly distraught when his late-race battle with Scott McLaughlin for the win led to McLaughlin punting them both into a tire wall. Grosjean climbed from his vehicle and pounded the tires as his first checkered flag in over a decade was ripped away from him. Then with the lead having fallen into his hands, Pato O’Ward was despondent as an engine fluke gave Ericsson the seconds of opportunity needed to dart around him. The way Grosjean, McLaughlin and O’Ward reacted to their devastation was ironically an incredible argument for IndyCar’s success: IndyCar is a place where not only are all of the drivers competitive, they’re also true competitors.

IndyCar 2023 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg race highlights. (Video Credit: Courtesy of YouTube.)

McLaughlin was seen with his head in his hands after getting out of the No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet, gutted at having lost the chance to become a back-to-back St. Petersburg winner. But when questioned about the contact with Grosjean in NBC’s post-race interviews, his thoughts weren’t for himself; they were on apologizing to his fellow competitor and eviscerating himself for what he saw as poor sportsmanship. “I don’t race like that,” he said for the first of multiple times, adding later, “I don’t care about that [the next race] right now. I concentrate on my own mistakes. I need to be better than that. I need to make better decisions.”

While he was taking a beating on social media, no one was harder on McLaughlin than the man himself. One can certainly understand his state of mind; that moment could have, should have decided the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg winner. He was doing what many others would have done in that situation. But he made an immediate mea culpa and went directly to speak with Grosjean at the Andretti Autosport hauler, where the two were seen literally hugging it out. To publicly admit wrongdoing and to privately settle the situation was an incredible display of sportsmanship from the Supercars champion—humility and selflessness when other forms of sport are dominated by ego, argument and individual celebrity.

Viewers could also take a lesson from the post-race conduct of Pato O’Ward. O’Ward is and has been desperate for the breakthrough he knows is possible with his talent. Yet it was a complete fluke out of his control that led him to a second-place finish, and he was so crushed that he clearly did not want to talk afterward. However, he carried on through an awkward post-race interview and a press conference that continued to prod him about the engine issue. Yes, doing media is part of an IndyCar driver’s professional obligation—but put yourself in O’Ward’s head for a moment. You’ve had something ripped away from you through no fault of your own, and then almost immediately people are constantly asking you about it.

NBC’s IndyCar 2023 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg post-race interviews. (Video Credit: Courtesy of IndyCar.)

“We did everything right today,” O’Ward commented in pit lane. “It’s just always something. The boys deserved that.” Later he was more emphatic, saying “We gave that one away. We can’t have that happen anymore. I know we’re second, but…” The stops and starts belied how upset he was. Yet when he could’ve asked for and even deserved space, the microphone stayed in his face and so he carried on while his former strategist Taylor Kiel celebrated with Ericsson in Victory Circle.

Penske Entertainment is clearly looking to push IndyCar closer to Formula One with its own Drive to Survive-style docuseries 100 Days to Indy and they deserve points for trying to raise the series’ struggling media profile. IndyCar is better than it’s given credit for. But it does not thrive on drama; one only needs to look at how the Indy Rivals ad campaign tried and failed to stir some up seven years ago. The other strength of these men and women is that workmanlike quality of flying under the radar. They fight each other on track, but not in the headlines. There may be the occasional cross comment or bad day, but they’re good, solid human beings who care deeply about what they do.

Racing is not just about winning or individual success for these drivers. It’s something that they put their heart and soul into, and they conduct themselves accordingly. They’re willing to show emotion, to admit mistakes, to right wrongs and to think of their teams as much as themselves. The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg may have been a chaotic start to the 2023 IndyCar season, but that chaos also brought out the best in the field.

The 2023 IndyCar season continues Sunday, April 2 at Texas Motor Speedway.

Article content is (c)2020-2023 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr and on Instagram at @BFTVGram.

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