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NASCAR, Indy races postponed until today

Photo by Chris O'Meara

Photo by Chris O'Meara

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Typically, it takes more than some strong bands of rain to keep Indy Racing League cars from getting on the track.

And Sunday was not typical, not by any measure.

With 6 inches of water pooling on some sections of the low-lying track, the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg was postponed after a band of thunderstorms pounded the course for much of the afternoon. It was the first time an Indy Racing League event was pushed back by weather since April 2008, when Danica Patrick won in Japan.

"We're one of the few series in the world that go racing in the rain," driver Ryan Hunter-Reay said. "And even this was a bit much."

Rain began falling at the 1.8-mile street circuit just before 1 p.m. Sunday, and a band of strong storms arrived quickly from there. Parts of the infield flooded, the line between grass and asphalt was impossible to find in some other areas, and as Dario Franchitti and Graham Rahal took a ride around the track in a pace car, waves generated by the tires sloshed high against the track wall.

"Some of the areas in the grass and the areas in the infield around (turns) 13 and 14 are literally ponds right now," said Brian Barnhart, the president of IRL's competition and racing operations division.

Fans were told to evacuate shortly before 2 p.m., near the end of the IndyLights race, because storms and lightning were expected, and drivers were told that even tornadoes were possible in the region.

"So much water you cannot see where the road stops," Rahal posted on Twitter about 30 minutes before the postponement was announced.

Today's event is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. And weather could play a role then, too -- forecasters are saying there's a chance of storms again in the St. Petersburg area. Crews will work overnight to try to clear the course of standing water.

"It's going to be a considerable challenge," Barnhart said.

It was a double-whammy of a weather day for racing fans. NASCAR's event in Martinsville, Va., also was pushed back by rain and now is set to begin Monday at noon.

NASCAR's start time is part of the reason why the decision was made for IRL to try to begin at 10 a.m. Both races will be on ESPN networks -- a blow to some drivers, since Sunday's race was one of the few slated to be aired on ABC this season.

"No way. Really? What would we have to do, cancel a soap opera? ... That's disappointing," Hunter-Reay said. "Rains, cancellations, delays are never good for racing and never good for the audience."

Local officials are trying to help that. Admission Monday will be free.

IRL races typically go on as scheduled even when it rains, the season opener two weeks ago in Sao Paulo the most recent example. Sunday's issue was the combination of puddles on the track, which can cause cars to go airborne, and several flashes of lightning that began being spotted in the area about two hours before the IndyCar race was to begin.

Plus, the National Weather Service said wind exceeding 25 mph was hitting the area, with higher gusts possible.

"It was pretty slick out there and the white lines on the runway were treacherous," said Stefan Wilson, who ran third in the soaked IndyLights race Sunday afternoon, which was to precede the IRL event. "A lot of people made a lot of mistakes in front of me."

There's several logistical issues to deal with, including continued road closures in downtown St. Petersburg -- where the circuit was set up -- and even possible adjustments to flight schedules at a small airport. Part of the Honda GP course includes one of the two runways at the city-owned Albert Whitted Airport, which was still scheduled to reopen fully by 7 a.m. Thursday.

"Me being around for so long, I've raced on Mondays quite more often than a lot of guys," Tony Kanaan said. "It's just one more day. You keep your game-plan on."

Forecasters originally said they were hoping for a window that could allow racing between 3:35 and 5 p.m. Sunday.

When the race starts Will Power, who won the rain-shortened event in Sao Paulo two weeks ago will be on the pole.

"We want to get out there and get out there for the fans that are watching," Patrick told ABC. "But it's got to be safe, too."

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NASCAR PUSHED BACK TO TODAY:

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- NASCAR's bad weather luck at Martinsville Speedway reared its head again Sunday as rain forced the postponed of the Sprint Cup race until today at noon.

It is the second year in a row that rain pushed an event into the work week at the track in southwest Virginia. Last spring, the truck series event had to be run today.

Rain also has washed out Sprint Cup qualifying for the past three spring races, putting points leader Kevin Harvick on the pole for the race. Harvick will be seeking a weekend sweep after dominating the truck race that was run in sunshine and ideal conditions Saturday.

Many drivers traded their ball caps for knit caps and wore heavy coats for driver introductions Sunday, which were conducted under heavy cloud cover and in a steady rain.

"It stinks for the fans and all the teams, but the fortunate thing is we've got an off week coming up, so it's not like this is going to put everybody way behind," said A.J. Allmendinger, who will start 21st.

NASCAR's premier series is taking its traditional break of the season for Easter next weekend.

The Monday race will be the first in the Sprint Cup Series since last August at Watkins Glen, N.Y. It will be the first Cup race on a Monday in Martinsville since the fall of 2001.

The absence of lights for night racing at the 0.526-mile oval meant the window for racing was already small considering the time it would take to dry the track if the rain stopped.

NASCAR does not allow a race to start unless it's feasible for the entire event to be run, and races at Martinsville take up to 4 hours to complete.

The call to postpone was made about 90 minutes after the scheduled 1 p.m. start.

The postponement also will push back Denny Hamlin's plans to have arthroscopic surgery on Monday to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. He still hopes to have the procedure this week so he'll have time to recover before the next race on April 10.