St. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Paul Tracy got the fast start he wanted so badly, taking control midway through the inaugural St. Petersburg Grand Prix and driving away with the victory Sunday.
Tracy, the winningest active driver in CART's Champ Car World Series but known as a slow starter, earned his 20th victory in the season-opening race on the temporary 1.806-mile, 14-turn downtown street circuit.
After crossing the finish line with the checkered flags waving, Tracy, driving a Ford Cosworth-powered Lola, celebrated with a series of smoking doughnuts. Moments later, though, his voice was calm and cool as he keyed his radio and said, "Great job guys. We got off on the right foot."
The 34-year-old Canadian driver, making his first start for Team Player's, passed rookie Tiago Monteiro for the lead on lap 35 and stayed out front to the end of the 105-lap event.
Tracy, who has failed to finish better than third in the championship in 12 seasons, is considered the favorite in 2003. Getting off to a fast start was his first goal.
"It's where we really wanted to be," he said. "It's where I wanted to be. I couldn't be any happier."
Tracy will take the lead into the next race, March 23 in Monterrey, Mexico.
Michel Jourdain Jr. finished second, but never challenged for the lead and was 12.136 seconds - several hundred yards - behind Tracy at the end.
Bruno Junqueira, having late-race brake problems, hung on for third, followed by Mario Haberfeld, the best finisher among nine rookies in the 19-car field.
Roberto Moreno, who had no ride last year and at 44 was the oldest driver in the field, finished fifth, the last driver on the lead lap.
It was a strong start for CART's top series, which struggled through two years of losing top drivers, teams and manufacturers before getting things going in the right direction late last season.
Aside from all the new faces among the drivers, there were five new teams on the grid Sunday. The Mi-Jack Conquest team, owned by former driver Eric Bachelart and Mike Lanigan, was the top finisher among the new teams, with Haberfeld at the wheel.
Jimmy Vasser, in sixth, was the top American finisher, with Monteiro seventh.
Rookie Sebastien Bourdais, who was so impressive in winning the pole, led the first 30 laps. When the other leaders pitted under caution on lap 16, the Frenchman stayed on the track, along with Adrian Fernandez.
Bourdais, last year's Formula 3000 champion, built a lead of nearly 13 seconds before he finally made his first stop on lap 30. By the time Bourdais returned to the track, fellow rookie Monteiro, from Portugal, was leading and Bourdais had slipped to fifth.
Bourdais got back to full speed before banging off one of the concrete walls lining part of the twisting circuit. That broke the left rear suspension and flattened the tire on his Lola, forcing him into the pits for a long stop.
The Newman/Hass Racing crew got Bourdais back on track after losing eight laps, and the 23-year-old racer drove to the finish, getting back to 11th place, thanks to high attrition.
The top 12 finishers get championship points and that's how many cars were running at the end, with 12th-place Oriol Servia nine laps behind.
Patrick Carpentier, Tracy's teammate, slammed into a tire wall on lap 48. By the time he was pushed away and had his front wing changed, Carpentier had lost two laps. But he continued and finished eighth.
Among the drivers who failed to finish were Alex Tagliani, who crashed into a tire wall on the third lap, and Fernandez, running 10th and on the lead lap when he was hit by fellow Mexican Mario Dominguez. Both cars continued, but damage from the accident knocked both out of the race.