With the temperature topping 80 degrees, the 17th annual Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg culminated with the NTT IndyCar Series race on Sunday, and 21-year-old Colton Herta, a California native who recently bought a home in Belleair, led the race nearly from start to finish to take the checkered flag.
Herta, who drives for Andretti Motorsport, set a new Grand Prix record by leading 97 of the 100 laps. The previous record, held by Helio Castroneves, was 95.
During qualifying sessions on Saturday, Herta won pole position, posting a best lap time of 1 minute, .3210 of a second. Two-time defending champion Josef Newgarden started third, while six-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Scott Dixon, who has won just about every race imaginable except the Grand Prix, started eighth.
“I knew we had a good race car for here and really good qualifying pace,” Herta said after taking pole position on Saturday.
Herta added two bonus points to his standing in the NTT IndyCar Series for leading the most laps during Sunday’s Grand Prix. Newgarden ran second for most of the race, and despite throwing everything he had at the leader in the waning stages of the contest, was unable to overtake Herta and win a third-consecutive Grand Prix.
Normally held in March, the late April heat seemed to make the Grand Prix — whose 1.8-mile, 14-turn track runs along St. Petersburg’s downtown waterfront — trickier than usual to navigate, with surface temperatures approaching 100 degrees. Jimmie Johnson, a champion NASCAR driver who was making his debut in an IndyCar street race, quickly found himself in trouble when he understeered on a turn and ran into a wall. Johnson carried on but fell off the pace by several laps and wasn’t a factor the rest of the day.
Alexander Rossi and Graham Rahal also made hard, wheel-to-wheel contact early in the race, causing damage to Rossi’s car that had to be repaired during a pit stop, but he was able to continue. During a post-race interview, Rossi shrugged off the incident, saying he didn’t think Rahal cut him off intentionally.
“You’re going through the same part of real estate,” he said. “I gave him room. It’s just one of those racing things. I thought we had our nose ahead going into the corner, but we gave him room. Track position is everything in these races.”
Sebastien Bourdais, who won the Grand Prix in 2017 and ’18 and resides in St. Pete, started the race in fifth position and was a steady performer throughout the day, finishing 10th. Dixon was once again in the hunt, crossing the line in fifth place. He was followed in sixth place by Takuma Sato, who won the 2020 Indianapolis 500.
Despite the hot, slick track conditions, the yellow flag didn’t come out until lap 73, which erased Herta’s big lead and brought the field back together. A few laps later, the race was back under caution when James Hinchcliffe and Ed Jones collided. Hinchcliffe was able to continue, while Jones’ car had to be attended by crew and was forced to the back of the pack for the restart.
The green flag flew with 17 laps to go, and Herta, showing nerves of steel despite his youth, maintained his grip on the lead, thwarting Newgarden and third-place finisher Simon Pageneau, who had showed up in a car outfitted with a shiny gold livery that glistened in the St. Pete sun and wore gold, gaudy, Elvis-style sunglasses during his post-race interview.
“It was a hot race but we are very happy overall,” Pageneau said.
The Grand Prix victory marks Herta’s first win of 2021 and fourth career win. It’s the 66th win for Andretti Motorsport, which is owned by former driver Michael Andretti, the son of racing legend Mario Andretti.