March 25 in Motorsports History: Castroneves honors Wheldon

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The 2012 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg was supposed to signify a new era of IndyCar racing.

For the first time since 2005, there were multiple engine manufacturers involved in the sport, with Chevrolet and Lotus joining Honda. All cars competing in the race also utilized a new chassis, the Dallara DW12.

But in addition to being the season opener for the IndyCar Series, the race weekend also served as a memorial of sorts to honor the driver for whom the new chassis was named.

Dan Wheldon, the winner of the previous year’s Indianapolis 500, served as the official test driver of the new chassis.

On the morning of Oct. 16, 2011, Wheldon signed a multiyear contract to race for Andretti Autosport beginning in 2012. Tragically, Wheldon was killed later that afternoon during a violent crash in the IndyCar season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

With St. Petersburg as the host city of the first race since Wheldon’s death and his adopted hometown, Mayor Bill Foster and Wheldon’s widow Susie unveiled a new street sign a few weeks prior to the race.

The sign read “Dan Wheldon Way” and was placed in Turn 10, where Wheldon passed Ryan Briscoe and Tony Kanaan to take the lead and win in 2005.

A few weeks after the dedication, the winner of that year’s race would park his car right at that spot.

Helio Castroneves started the 2012 season opener from the fifth position and remained in contention throughout.

The Team Penske driver took the lead on Lap 75 and retained it through the checkered flag, winning at the Florida street course for the third time in his career.

Podium finishers Ryan Hunter-Reay, Helio Castroneves, and Scott Dixon celebrate with Holly Wheldon following the 2012 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

In his two previous victories at St. Pete, Castroneves celebrated by climbing the fence in Turn 1 to celebrate. But he changed things up in his third victory.

On the cooldown lap, Castroneves parked his car in Turn 10 and ran toward the fence. He climbed it and began to pat and point toward the “Dan Wheldon Way” sign as a tribute to his lost competitor. The crowd in the Turn 10 grandstand cheered.

You can never question God’s mystery,” Castroneves said about Wheldon’s death during his postrace interviews.

Wheldon’s sister, Holly, joined Castroneves and the other podium finishers in victory lane

“Honestly, I did not plan it, it was just the way it happened, and there was the sign,” Castroneves said. “But we’ve got to remember him as he lived, the way he lived and continue to pray for his family.”

Castroneves went on to win one more time in 2012, taking the checkered flag at Edmonton in July. The Brazillian finished fourth in the overall points standings.

Also on this date:

1979: A.J. Foyt won the Datsun Twin 200, the USAC Champ Car Series season opener, at Ontario Motor Speedway in California. Foyt also won the 200-mile USAC stock car race that took place at the track that day.

1982: Danica Patrick was born in Beloit, Wisconsin. In 2005, Patrick became the first woman in history to lead the Indianapolis 500. In 2008, she became the first woman to win an IndyCar race by taking the checkered flag at Twin Ring Motegi.

1984: Alain Prost won the Grand Prix of Brazil, which also saw the debut of a 24-year-old rookie named Ayrton Senna.

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April 9 in Motorsports History: Al Unser Jr. gets sixth Long Beach win

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The list of winners in the Grand Prix of Long Beach is a ‘who’s who’ of open-wheel racing.

Mario Andretti won at the famed street course four times. His son Michael won there twice.

Paul Tracy is also a four-time winner at the beach. Alex Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya, Sebastien Bourdais, and Alexander Rossi also have won at the famed course multiple times.

But there is only one “King of the Beach”: Al Unser Jr.

The winningest driver in the race’s history, Unser won at Long Beach four consecutive times from 1988-91. He won again in 1994 and entered the 1995 edition as the race’s defending champion and the defending CART champion as well.

Starting fourth, Unser made slight contact with Gil de Ferran when he passed the Brazilian on Lap 3. He then continued to move up to the front, taking the race lead from Teo Fabi on Lap 30.

Once he had the lead, Unser ran away from the field, winning by more than 23 seconds over Scott Pruett.

Unser’s victory was such a familiar scene that after the race, CART news manager John Procida began the winner’s news conference with the following statement: “Well, we have a very familiar face on the top rung of the podium. As we listed on the prerace press release, this seems to be the Al Unser Invitational.”

Indeed it was. Unser’s victory was his sixth at Long Beach, and the 28th of his career. overall. While it would be his last win there, Unser continued to race at Long Beach through 1998 before missing 1999 with a broken leg and moving to the Indy Racing Leauge in 2000.

In 2009, Unser was inducted into the Long Beach Motorsports Walk of Fame, which honors significant contributors to the race and California motorsports community.

“It truly is just an honor to be mentioned with the names and the legends that have already been put into the sidewalk,” Unser said during the induction ceremony. “To have Brian (Redman, the inaugural winner of the race) and Parnelli (Jones) is really an honor and just to be in their company is very, very special.”

Also on this date:

1971: Jacques Villeneuve was born in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Canada. The second-generation driver was one of the best in open-wheel racing during the 1990s, winning the Indianapolis 500 and CART championship in ’95 and becoming a Formula One champion two years later.

1989: Rick Mears dominated CART’s Checker Autoworks 200 at Phoenix International Raceway, leading every lap from the pole and lapping the field.

2011: Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas won the Porsche 250 at Barber Motorsports Park, their sixth consecutive victory in Grand Am competition. Their lengthy win streak, which started on Aug. 7, 2010 at Watkins Glen, prompted Grand Am to offer a $25,000 bounty for any Daytona Prototype team that could beat the dominant duo. The Action Express trio of Joao Barbosa, J.C. France, and Terry Borcheller finally unseated Pruett and Rojas in the series’ next round at Virginia International Raceway.

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter @michaele1994