St. Pete flashback: A new Power emerges in 2009

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Next Sunday’s Verizon IndyCar Series season-opener will mark the 10th anniversary of that series’ version of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (and the 11th St. Pete open-wheel race overall, counting Champ Car’s 2003 event there).

Over the last decade, we’ve seen some memorable moments as the event has evolved into one of the series’ signature races. One of those started in a time of uncertainty for one of the sport’s biggest stars but ultimately resulted in a new member of IndyCar’s core nucleus of drivers.

In the fall of 2008, Helio Castroneves and his sister were charged with tax evasion and were forced to face a trial in Miami, which would cause the then two-time Indianapolis 500 winner to miss the start of the 2009 season.

Before the trial began, Team Penske had made the decision to bring in Australian driver Will Power to replace Castroneves in the No. 3 machine in the interim.

Power had shown flashes of his ultimate potential with a pair of Champ Car victories in 2007 and a triumph in the series’ finale at Long Beach in 2008.

He had landed at KV Racing Technology following the reunification of the sport, but the chance to drive for the legendary Team Penske – even in a part-time role – was one he couldn’t turn down.

With Castroneves tending to his legal problems, Power drove his No. 3 in the ’09 season opener at St. Petersburg and overcame both a pit road miscue and late contact to finish in sixth place, while then-teammate Ryan Briscoe won the race.

“I think we were on par to have a pretty good strategy today, but just as we pulled in for our first pit stop we had some bad luck with that yellow,” Power said that day. “Plus, I sort of made it hard on our guys by pulling into the wrong pit, but I hung in there and made sure I stayed out of trouble and kept progressing throughout the day.

“I think considering everything that happened out there, bringing the Team Penske car home in sixth is great.”

Power’s efforts ultimately led to more races that year with Penske, including the next one at Long Beach, which saw Castroneves return to the team after being acquitted of his charges.

Despite being moved to a new car – the No. 12 – Power still won the pole and converted it to a runner-up finish at the Beach. Later that year, he pulled off a victory at Edmonton before he suffered season-ending injuries in a practice crash at Sonoma that August.

But he’d done enough. Power was added to the Penske ranks full-time for the 2010 season. And the rest was history.

Since that point, he’s earned 17 more Verizon IndyCar Series victories and has become one of the series’ regular title contenders.

NBCSN begins its coverage of the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series championship with the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 13. CLICK HERE for the full broadcast schedule.

Cooper solidifies PWC GT presence with Callaway Corvette

Callaway, Cooper, Gill. Photo: PWC
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Pirelli World Challenge could use a “face” of the series from a driving standpoint, and American Michael Cooper is a good candidate to fill that role for 2018.

Cooper, 27, has won PWC Touring Car, GTS and, most recently the SprintX GT titles within the series and has quickly blossomed into one of the series’ top GT stars.

It’s been a rapid rise for the Syosset, N.Y. native, entering into a world filled with series stars and champions such as Johnny O’Connell, Patrick Long, Alvaro Parente and a host of others.

But under O’Connell’s tutelage, Cooper admirably filled the rather gaping shoes vacated by Andy Pilgrim at Cadillac Racing, steering the Cadillac ATS-V.R to multiple race wins in the last two years – including a sweep of this year’s season finale weekend at Sonoma.

Cooper and Jordan Taylor were the model of consistency in SprintX this year, winning once at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and surviving contact at Circuit of The Americas to take that title.

With Cadillac withdrawing its ATS-V.R program at the end of the year though, Cooper was left a free agent for 2018. Fortunately with one door closed another opened, in the form of the GM-blessed but full Callaway Competition USA effort with its Callaway Corvette C7 GT3-R that will come Stateside next year. Cooper and Daniel Keilwitz will be in the team’s two cars for the full season; the car was fully unveiled last week at the PRI Show in Indianapolis.

The Callaway is a proven commodity in Europe but couldn’t run in the U.S. unless the path was cleared by one of GM’s factory programs to end a direct, potential head-to-head competition.

Moving from the Cadillac to the Callaway Corvette should be a natural transition, Cooper said last week.

“It worked out incredibly well that GM decided to allow Calloway to run the car in the United States and it created an opportunity for me that wouldn’t have been there otherwise,” he told NBC Sports. “I talked to a lot of other GT teams and at the end of the day, I felt like this was the best direction for me to be competitive next year and to also continue furthering my career with General Motors.”

Indeed Cooper has graduated from the Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.R in GTS to the Cadillac and now to the Callaway Corvette. Cooper hailed the Cadillac team for what they did for his career growth.

“Working with Cadillac Racing has been instrumental in developing my abilities both on and off the track,” he said. “So I’m definitely a much more well-rounded driver now and have a lot of experience in the World Challenge GT field, so I kind of know what to expect going into that first race and going into that first corner in St. Pete.”

As noted, the car’s success in Europe means it’s a well-oiled machine by the time Reeves Callaway has worked with PWC to bring it Stateside next year. And as Cooper explained, discussions had been underway for a bit of time to ensure his presence in this car and team.

“I think the car is going to be extremely capable. It’s already won championships and races in Europe. I think, in bringing it over here, we’re going to hit the ground running straight away,” he said.

“Calloway had wanted me to come drive for them in July or August. We always kept in touch since then, and there was a lot of work trying to put together a program before they decided that they were going to do a fully fledged factory program. So once they made that decision, I think the pieces were kind of in place already, and the conversations had been had to be able to say ‘You’re going to be our guy.’”

December is late for IMSA programs to get finalized, but it’s relatively early for PWC, with the season not starting until mid-March in St. Petersburg. An extensive testing program should follow, as Callaway establishes its U.S. base and infrastructure.

“It’s definitely early for a Pirelli World Challenge program to be announced in December when we start racing in March. So that’s very good,” he said. “But, the team has a lot of work ahead of them in terms of getting infrastructure set up here in the United States, because a lot of their racing program has been in Europe. So, there will be a testing program, but they have to get the infrastructure in place first. But, we’ll be well prepared for St. Pete, I’m certain of it.

“Last year was the first year when I could sit back, kick my feet up, and know what I was doing next year. So, to be able to have everything done and be able to announce it this early on makes my life less stressful and now I can just focus on preparing myself and my team for next year.”