The smoke from the 2022 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg has cleared after showcasing the city to a national and international television audience, along with reportedly record-breaking crowds throughout the city’s downtown waterfront.
According to NTT IndyCar officials, Sunday’s crowd was up 49% compared to 2019, when an estimated 140,000 people attended the race over three days. That would put the total number of attendees for this weekend’s signature event at well over 200,000.
NBC broadcast Sunday’s IndyCar opener to a live national audience, and commentator Leigh Diffey relayed that before the final race of the weekend, race promoters had said “they could be looking at the biggest crowd they’ve ever had here in St. Pete.” The Grand Prix began in 2003, and officials capped the last two races at 20,000 people per day due to Covid restrictions.
“It is so great to see so many people here,” said Diffey. “When you make your way around the Paddock area, it takes a little extra time to get to where you’re going.”
The Sunshine City lived up to its name over the weekend. Mother nature treated the international crowd to February temperatures that hovered around 80 degrees with only a few stray clouds in the sky. Mayor Ken Welch and other local officials have referred to the live broadcast as a two-hour-long commercial for the city. Racing fans viewing from home were offered clear views of a packed municipal marina, the Pier, the Yacht Club basin and the St. Pete skyline overlooking the Tampa Bay.
With a myriad of activities and vendors throughout the downtown track area, the motorsports fans filling the grandstands around Albert Whitted Airport and watching along the fences surrounding the 1.8 mile-street course enjoyed a race that was competitive until the final second.
Last year, Colton Herta, 21, dominated the Grand Prix and broke a record by leading the pack for 97 out of 100 laps. Herta, a hometown favorite after moving to Bellair in 2020, raced well but could not match last year’s speed.
Herta positioned himself among the top five cars for most of the race but could never take the lead, finishing fourth and missing the podium by 13 seconds. While Herta enjoyed a 2.49-second cushion in a relatively comfortable victory last year, Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin held off defending IndyCar champion Alex Palou in the final laps to claim his first IndyCar win.
McLaughlin paced the crowd for 49 out of 100 laps but crossed the finish line just half a second before Palou.
“It was just a phenomenal weekend perseverance,” said McLaughlin, who also won Saturday’s qualifying round. “You just don’t give up. You don’t doubt yourself.”
McLaughlin’s win validated the New Zealander’s decision to join IndyCar. McLaughlin left Australia after winning three-straight V8 Supercar championships, and the 28-year-old had a tough rookie season in IndyCar.
McLaughlin told reporters he is a “competitive bloke” and relayed the difficulty in changing his mindset from expecting a win every weekend to just hoping for a top-15 finish.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself, like, ‘why isn’t this happening, why am I sucking in qualifying when I’m good,’” he said. “It’s a mind game, man, and you’ve got to be on top of it. You’ve got to just believe in yourself.”
Following his victory, McLaughlin excitedly jumped on top of his car to celebrate in Victory Lane but promptly fell to the ground. McLaughlin said he thought it was a good idea until his legs felt like jelly and that he “looked like a wombat” in front of the throngs of fans.
McLaughlin then sat on the ground to video-call his parents in New Zealand. He said they watched the race live on the IndyCar app, but due to the pandemic, the Kiwi has not seen his mother or father since January of 2020.
“I miss them dearly,” said McLaughlin. “My mum and dad were the ones that got me here and made me believe in myself.”
McLaughlin’s main sponsor is Tampa-based Dex Imaging, and the driver said he was proud and happy to secure a victory for the home race team. McLaughlin said he hopes to finish in the top eight for the remainder of the season, which would put him in a good position to compete for the title.
For the last three years, the winner of IndyCar’s season opener has gone on to win the series championship. McLaughlin said he does not consider himself the championship favorite following the win and prefers to keep his newfound IndyCar success low-key.
“Oh mate, I don’t know,” said McLaughlin of his title odds. “Let’s be the underdog for a little while longer.”
Palou finished second for Chip Gnassi Racing, while McLaughlin’s Team Penske teammate Will Power finished third. IndyCar is now off until the March 20 race at Texas Motor Speedway. The 2023 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg returns to its usual start date in March next year.