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Firestone Grand Prix revs up with flag-raising ceremony at city hall

Brian Hartz

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Driver Sebastien Bourdais speaks during Thursday's Firestone Grand Prix flag-raising ceremony. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

With the tumult of 2020 in its rearview mirror, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg officially got underway today with a flag-raising ceremony at City Hall that was attended by the 2017 Grand Prix champion — and St. Pete resident — Sebastien Bourdais, Mayor Rick Kriseman, Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin, city council members and race co-owners Kim Green and Kevin Savoree.

“I’m super excited and happy to be back here,” said Bourdais, who is participating in the St. Pete race for the 12th year. “It feels like it was yesterday when we finished the season here in 2020.”

He could be forgiven for thinking that. The 17th annual Grand Prix is the second edition of the race to be held in less than a year, after the Covid-19 pandemic forced the 2020 race to be moved from March to October, upending the IndyCar schedule: In normal times, the Grand Prix kicks off a new racing season, but last year it was the finale.

“It seems like the movie Groundhog Day,” Savoree said during his remarks at the flag-raising ceremony. “We hit the buzzer and here we are again.”

The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg transforms St. Pete’s downtown waterfront into an IndyCar racetrack full of twists and turns.

The 2020 Grand Prix, as originally scheduled in March, was one of the first major public events to be canceled as the coronavirus pandemic took hold in St. Pete and across the country. During a March 12, 2020, news conference about the status of the race, a somber Kriseman remarked, “This is a chaotic time in the city.”

The mayor’s words rang true because just as the race was about to be run with no fans in attendance, race and city officials decided — in the interest of public health and safety — to pull the plug entirely and reschedule the event for later in the year.

Savoree, in his remarks on Thursday, said that while a limited number of fans will be allowed to attend the 2021 Grand Prix, strict Covid-19 protocols will remain in place. Event policy calls for mask-wearing at all times, enforced social distancing in the seating and exhibitor areas and the presence of hand-sanitizer stations with foot pedals.

“We are doing the right thing with all of our Covid protocols,” he said. “We are asking everyone to wear a mask, social distance and use hand sanitizer.”

Kriseman, noticeably more upbeat on Thursday than he was in March last year, spoke about how the Grand Prix shows off St. Pete to a global audience.

“Every time we have the race, especially when the weather is as beautiful as it is today — and will be this weekend — it is in St. Petersburg one of the most wonderful times of the year,” he said. “We get to showcase this amazing city, and there’s nothing like being broadcast on NBC to do that.”

In addition to the excitement of having the Grand Prix back in its normal place on the calendar, more or less, Kriseman also mentioned the compelling storylines surrounding the 17th edition of the race.

“We have not had a three-peat, but that is a possibility this year with Josef Newgarden,” he said. “And Scott Dixon has not won here. I suspect that’s something he’s going to want to change.”

Newgarden, who hails from Tennessee, won the Grand Prix in both 2019 and 2020. He will be looking to fend off New Zealand’s Dixon, one of the most celebrated drivers in all of motorsport, whose 50 career wins put him behind only the legendary A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti. Dixon won the IndyCar circuit’s crown jewel, the Indianapolis 500, in 2008 but has never taken the checkered flag in St. Pete; however, he’s come agonizingly close several times, finishing second in 2019, 2012, 2007 and 2006, and third in 2020 and 2017. He has been the overall NTT IndyCar Series points leader six times, including last year.

The 17th annual Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg kicks off Friday with a series of qualifying sessions and minor-circuit races that continue into Saturday. The event culminates on Sunday with the IndyCar race getting underway at 12:42 p.m. As of today, tickets were still available. For a complete schedule of events and to purchase tickets, visit the Grand Prix website.

Catalyst Senior Writer and Editor Bill DeYoung contributed to this story.

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