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Grand Prix season begins in St. Petersburg

Mark Parker

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From left: Marcus Ericsson, 2023 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg winner; Angus Rogers, a Sarasota-based IMSA VP Racing driver; Nikita Johnson, a St. Pete native and 2023 USF Pro 2000 winner; Heather Robb, director of the Police Athletic League of St. Petersburg; Kevin Savoree, co-founder of Green Savoree Racing; Mayor Ken Welch; and Kim Green, co-founder of Green Savoree Racing. Photos by Mark Parker.

Mayor Ken Welch, 2023 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Peterburg winner Marcus Ericsson and event organizers gathered along the waterfront Thursday to celebrate racing returning to the city.

The 20th annual Grand Prix does not begin until March 8. However, Thursday morning’s event commemorated crews placing the first concrete track block along the 1.8-mile street course.

The race and four-day festival, dubbed the “world’s fastest spring break party,” will again kick off the NTT IndyCar Series. Ericsson, also an Indianapolis 500 champion, called St. Petersburg the “perfect place” to start a season.

“It’s a fun race to drive,” Ericsson told the Catalyst. “But also, for friends and family, it’s cool to walk around and enjoy the city. On top of watching some good racing.”

Marcus Ericsson (center) dodged several wrecks to win the 2023 Grand Prix. Pato O’Ward (left) came in second, while Scott Dixon placed third.

Ericsson, 33, hails from Sweden. He said his family annually attends two events – the Indy 500 and the St. Pete Grand Prix.

The race showcases the city to a national and global audience. St. Petersburg’s downtown waterfront serves as the temporary street course’s backdrop, and over 1.2 million people watched NBC’s live broadcast in 2023.

The Grand Prix annually attracts well over 100,000 international attendees. Several outlets estimated the 2022 race topped 200,000, not counting the thousands more watching from locations outside the track’s fences.

Green-Savoree Racing, the event’s organizers, do not release attendance numbers. However, co-found Kevin Savoree said, “Ticket sales are trending well ahead of last year.”

“Last year was a record,” he added. “So, that’s really exciting.”

Welch noted that the Grand Prix is now ingrained in St. Petersburg’s culture. He said it embodies the city’s energy, vibrancy and inclusiveness, and its community benefits “stretch far beyond the track.”

The Grand Prix generated a $61 million economic impact in 2023, including $31 million in direct spending. The city collected $3.3 million in taxes.

“We expect that this year, we will surpass those figures,” Welch said. “And this year, the Grand Prix also gave back in a new way by donating to four nonprofits in our community.”

Presenters at Thursday morning’s event pose in front of Grand Prix-branded IndyCar.

The race’s festivities now begin on Thursday, March 7, with a 5K run or walk along the track. Heather Robb, director of the Police Athletic League of St. Petersburg, said the fundraising event has contributed over $270,000 to her organization since 2017.

“These funds have been extremely critical to our organization and … to children living right here in St. Pete,” Robb said. “While we’re here to talk about building a track, we’re also here to talk about building a better St. Pete.”

Green Savoree will lay 18,000 feet of steel-reinforced concrete blocks weighing 20 million pounds around downtown streets circling Pioneer Park, the Mahaffey Theater, the Dali Museum and onto the Albert Whitted Airport runway. Nearly 300 workers will complete the installation in 26 days – a new record.

Savoree said city agreements allow a 75-day window. However, he expressed pride in mitigating disruptions to the now-bustling city.

“St. Pete is a lot different than it was in 2005 when Kim (Green) and I started this event,” Savoree said. “Today, it’s such a busy downtown. And for us, it was important to focus on how to stay out of the way and get out of the way.”

The track will also feature 25,000 feet of chain-link spectator fencing and 18,000 feet of panel fencing that secures the concrete barriers. Over 12,000 reinforced rubber tires will comprise the course’s wall safety system.

Those received significant use in 2023, as five wrecks knocked out nine drivers in a chaotic race. Ericsson said the narrow track’s difficulty is also part of its allure.

“It’s bumpy, and it’s technical, and you have no margin for error,” he added. “For me, that combination makes the track very unique and … also very cool to drive.”

Ericsson explained that the IndyCar drivers are anxious and aggressive during the season opener. He said they want to show off their new cars and skills, which leads to mistakes and crashes.

Ericsson noted the importance of qualifying events that determine car positioning. He credited last year’s victory to starting upfront and remaining calm amid the action.

“This race is more than just a race – the whole city is sort of coming alive,” Ericsson said. “It’s such a highlight to come here and start our season.”

For event and ticket information, visit the website here.

 

 

 

 

 

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Steve Sullivan

    February 15, 2024at9:32 pm

    Oh, stop it. There is one section of downtown that is blocked off and it is on the outer boundary.

  2. Avatar

    David B.

    February 15, 2024at5:03 pm

    This is one time each year when I make sure to get out of town. The incessant droning of the cars is beyond disruptive and annoying, as is the concrete blocking of a good part of downtown. The worst downtown St. Pete event every year, hands down.

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