- Associated Press - Monday, March 26, 2012

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. (AP) - IndyCar needed a nice, smooth race to open its season.

What the series didn’t need _ couldn’t afford, really _ was a snoozer.

There’s mixed feelings about Sunday’s season opener through the streets of St. Petersburg, where fans in attendance were adamant they saw a good race. But that didn’t translate to television, where IndyCar desperately needs to shine.

The series had a huge opportunity with its opener to showcase its product to the casual fan. The death of Dan Wheldon in last season’s finale put the spotlight on the series the last five months and probably pulled in some new eyeballs for ABC’s broadcast. The race drew a 1.1 overnight rating, down just a tick from the 1.2 the opener did last season.

The television rating, for IndyCar, is acceptable, especially considering the race was up against Tiger Woods and the NCAA tournament.

And fans who tuned in were able to see that IndyCar had a lot to be proud of: A new car, multiple engine manufacturers, improved competition and several new faces, including popular former Formula One star Rubens Barrichello. It also helped that NASCAR, the beast of American auto racing, was out west and its race in California wasn’t a head-to-head competition.

“There’s definitely more interest going into this season then there has been in 15 years,” racing great Mario Andretti declared at the start of the weekend.

But when the green flag waved _ it was done by Wheldon’s little sister, Holly, _ IndyCar’s drivers carefully maneuvered their way through treacherous Turn 1 incident-free and sailed off for a fairly uneventful race.

Of course, nobody wanted a repeat of last year, when a five-car accident on the first lap in that very spot flipped Marco Andretti upside down. But they wanted something _ anything _ that matched the energy surrounding the event. Ultimately, there ended up being only one significant pass shown during the television broadcast, and it wasn’t even for the lead.

Granted, Helio Castroneves‘ move around Scott Dixon ended up being the race-deciding pass. But when it actually happened, it was for second place, and Castroneves eventually drove away to an unchallenged win with a 5.5292 seconds margin of victory over Dixon.

When asked why the race didn’t have more action, Dixon seemed genuinely surprised to learn people found it boring.

“I started in seventh, got to the lead, then got passed. That is eight spots right there,” he said. “I thought the racing was good. The first part of the race was good, mixed up really good, people were trying to pass.”

Not at the front, though, and not much of it was caught on camera. As the race developed, and it became clear that fuel strategy would play a huge factor in deciding many finishing positions, the chances for anything exciting happening slipped considerably.

Many drivers were ordered by their teams to conserve fuel. Doing that requires slowing down, which goes against the very nature of racing.

“I think had it not been a fuel race at the end, you would have seen a lot more action,” said third-place finisher Ryan Hunter-Reay, who admitted he couldn’t try to chase down Castroneves and Dixon.

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