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What to know ahead of this weekend’s Grand Prix

Mark Parker

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Scott McLaughlin sprays a celebratory bottle of champagne after last year's Grand Prix victory. Photos by Mark Parker.

Ceremonies for what race promoters dubbed “the world’s fastest spring break party” commenced Thursday morning, kicking off three days of auto racing and events in downtown St. Petersburg.

Scott McLaughlin, last year’s winner, joined Mayor Ken Welch, city council members, IndyCar President Jay Frye and race co-owners Kim Green and Kevin Savoree for the annual flag-raising ritual Thursday at City Hall. Shortly after, race officials announced the Firestone Grand Prix – now in its 19th year – will remain in the city for the foreseeable future.

Mark Miles, president of Penske Entertainment Corp., called the race “an exceptional season opener for the NTT IndyCar Series” that has become “a pillar event on our calendar” in a statement. The announcement said it was a “multi-year” extension.

“The growing crowds and TV audience and continued support from Firestone are important signs of the event’s strength and future,” Miles added. “We look forward to the City of St. Petersburg providing the perfect showcase for the stars of the NTT IndyCar Series for years to come.”

IndyCar drivers routinely top 100 mph on St. Petersburg’s street course.

The IndyCar Party in the Park begins at 5:30 p.m. Thursday in North Straub Park. The free event features appearances by drivers, autograph sessions and cars representing the Grand Prix’s six different racing series.

Practices and qualifying rounds begin at 7:50 a.m. Friday, with the first official races hitting the downtown streets Saturday morning. It all builds up to Sunday’s main event; here are some things to know ahead of race weekend.

Expect hundreds of thousands of people

IndyCar officials announced last year’s attendance was up 49% compared to a then-record 140,000 people in 2019. That would put the total number of attendees at over 208,000 (even though it took place in February, a full month earlier than usual).

That number does not reflect thousands more watching from downtown locations outside the track’s fences. At the time, NBC commentator Leigh Diffey said it was “great to see so many people here” but warned it takes “a little extra time to get where you’re going.”

The 2022 Grand Prix drew a record-breaking crowd to St. Pete.

The Grand Prix showcases St. Petersburg

City Councilmember Ed Montanari called the Grand Prix “a two-hour commercial for the City of St. Petersburg” ahead of last year’s race – when over 180 media outlets representing 200 countries received credentials. Promoters sold tickets in every state but Alaska and Hawaii.

NBC officials announced that the 2022 Grand Prix was the most-watched IndyCar opener in 11 years, and the audience topped every series race since 2011’s Indy 500. An average of 1.43 million people saw St. Petersburg’s downtown and waterfront as the backdrop.

The Course

The temporary circuit is at the Mahaffey Theater and the Dali Museum.

The track also overlooks the St. Petersburg Harbor and Marina. Race and city officials install temporary docks in the South Yacht Basin to accommodate fans, racers and team owners.

As such, McLaughlin called the race “the Monaco of IndyCar.”

The main event

The race will feature 27 cars, a new Grand Prix record. Six-time IndyCar series champion Scott Dixon will make his 369th start, tied for fourth on the all-time list. After four second-place finishes, he will look to secure his first victory in St. Pete.

Country music singer Trace Adkins will perform the national anthem at noon Sunday. Two F-16 Fighting Falcons from Homestead Air Reserve Base will simultaneously fly over the track.

The Grand Marshall is LPGA Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam, an Orlando resident, who will give racers the command to start their engines at 12:23 p.m. The green flag will drop at 12:30 p.m.

“Annika is the greatest golfer to ever play the game, and Trace is a country music icon,” said Green in a prepared statement. “We are thrilled to have them both be a part of this marquee event and add to the pre-race excitement …”

View the complete schedule here.

 

 

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