The 2022 Firestone Grand Prix is just two weeks away from roaring back onto the streets of downtown St. Petersburg, and the city council formally approved the dates and times that will best showcase the event to a national audience.
The 18th consecutive Grand Prix of St. Petersburg takes place Feb. 25-27 and kicks off the 2022 NTT IndyCar Series. The 1.8 mile, 14-turn circuit begins on a section of runway at Albert Whitted airport and snakes around the city’s downtown waterfront streets. IndyCar is an international sport, and the race provides a showcase for St. Pete, both around the country and the world.
Chris Ballestra, director of development for the city, went before the city council at Thursday’s meetings to get formal approval for the race days and times. He explained the importance of securing a national broadcasting timeslot to ensure the race reaches as many people as possible.
Ballestra called the city’s live presence on a major network a big deal and noted there was a window from around noon to 2:30 p.m. for the championship round on Sunday, Feb. 27 on NBC.
“Which is effectively a big advertisement for the City of St. Petersburg,” said Ballestra.
Mayor Ken Welch was selected as the Grand Marshall and will give one of the most famous commands in sports – “Drivers, start your engines” – just before 12:30 p.m. that Sunday.
Ballestra called the relationship between the city and Green Savoree Racing, which operates the race, a model for public-private partnerships. He said the two partners work extensively with local stakeholders and the community to achieve excellent results for the international event.
“When I say international, I don’t use that term lightly,” he added. “There are tickets sold … to Japan, Argentina, U.K., Brazil, Sweden, Spain, Germany, Canada, Netherlands, Mexico, Peru and Ireland.
“This really puts St. Pete on a world stage, and we’re very proud of that.”
Ballestra said at least 182 media outlets representing 200 countries received credentials for this year’s Grand Prix, along with tickets sold in 48 states.
Following the last-minute cancellation of the March 2020 Grand Prix, organizers postponed the event until October. The first race of the IndyCar season became the last in 2020, and the event nicknamed the “world’s fastest spring break” became the world’s fastest fall festival, albeit scaled-down and heavily restricted.
Just six months later, the race returned to its usual spring slot, and St. Pete hosted another scaled-down Grand Prix in April 2021, Covid restrictions intact. Ballestra said those races became a template for hosting large events during the pandemic- both in St. Pete and around the country.
“As a city, we’ve done a very good job of navigating Covid-19 and the pandemic over the last year and a half,” he said.
According to city code, the city council has the right to approve or disapprove of the Grand Prix. In 2004, the city established a race and “clean” zone, along with all the regulations that take effect during race weekend.
Council Chair Gina Driscoll said that before 2020, it seemed as if the city had an established system of naming race dates in advance.
“This one’s not where we used to have it,” she said. “I understand it’s because of bigger TV exposure, but there are a lot of businesses… that really need to be able to plan further in advance.”
Ballestra said the involved parties established a date last summer that tied into IndyCar’s contract with NBC, and NBC changed the date. He said the network’s reasoning is less important than the work the other parties put into searching for suitable alternative dates.
He added that the stakeholders and community come first and mentioned the Mahaffey Theater and Dali Museum as “the biggest stakeholders in the neighborhood.”
Ballestra said St. Pete is a busy city, and while that is a blessing, it makes every weekend in the spring a challenge. He noted that dates for 2023 and 2024 were secured with NBC, leaving plenty of notice for area businesses and residents moving forward.
“We collectively want to have that great TV time,” said Ballestra. “So, we did make a choice this year to advance the date two weeks from its regularly scheduled time.”
Kevin Savoree, co-owner of Green Savoree racing, explained the difficulty of finding other dates without conflicting events. He also thanked Bill Edwards, operator of the Mahaffey, for his continued involvement and flexibility during that process.
Savoree said moving to a later date would have also meant a USA Network cable broadcast instead of NBC. While the global reach for the race would have remained the same, he said the national reach would decrease by well over a million viewers.
“It’s a significant difference in eyeballs,” said Savoree.
Councilmember Ed Montanari agreed with Driscoll’s point about the strain changing dates puts on businesses. He also noted that changes impede city and county organizations’ ability to sufficiently advertise the event.
Montanari recalled that in his previous career as an airline pilot, he once watched the Grand Prix during a layover in South America. He said that exposure makes a difference all over the world.
“I’ve always talked about it being a two-hour TV commercial for the City of St. Petersburg,” he said. “But having it on a major network versus a smaller network – there’s a lot of value there.”
The city council unanimously approved the resolution establishing the race days and times.