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A look at the past, present, and future of the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

The Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in 2003. (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images).
The Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in 2003. (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images).
Ted Fleming
EXPERT

The Grand Prix of St. Petersburg has seen a lot of changes over the years, as it steered its way through a not-so-humble inception that crashed and burned, to wrangling with the present-day quagmire posed by the pandemic. Through it all, it remained one of the crown jewels of the IndyCar Series.

Ever since the event made its debut in 2003 under the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) banner, it has always been an early spring race. Before CART went the way of the dodo at the end of that year (it evolved into the Champ Car World Series), its first and only run in the Sunshine City was on Feb. 23. There would be no race the following year because IndyCar was pecking at the bankrupt organization's carcass that was being liquidated.

The 2003 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg organizers had high hopes

Before CART bit the dust, it put on one heck of a show around the city, including a gala held at the posh The Vinoy Renaissance Hotel for media members, drivers, and high-profile celebrities. It was replete with food stations piled high with shrimp and other delicacies, and outside the ballroom, a massive table filled with decadent desserts. No expense was spared. CEO Christopher Pook was everywhere; shaking hands, answering questions, and schmoozing with attendees.

The race was a modest success, with Paul Tracy taking the checkered flag. He would add six more wins and capture the final CART championship. Then, it all came crashing down.

Paul Tracy (r) after the 2003 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg win, (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images).
Paul Tracy (r) after the 2003 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg win, (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images).

The Grand Prix of St. Petersburg would become a staple on Florida’s west coast, with the first five events held in early April. Every race since then has been scheduled in March, with the date moving up earlier and earlier in the month. In 2010, it was Mar. 29, and in 2019, it was Mar. 10. Last year it was supposed to be the 15th. As we know, that didn’t happen.

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Since 2011, IndyCar opened up in St. Petersburg. Unfortunately, March 2020 was the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, and the series had to call it off. No one knew when or if the season would begin. Open-wheel fans had to wait until June 6 to see a race, and only on television. Meanwhile, promoters of the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, or city leaders for that matter, knew that IndyCar was about to put it back on the calendar.

To make up for the canceled/rescheduled event, it became the finale where the drivers' championship would be determined. The Grand Prix of St. Petersburg would go back to its usual spot for 2021, but the pandemic reared its ugly head again, affecting the race. This time, IndyCar shifted it to the second date of the year, behind the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park.

It could be argued that IndyCar was overly cautious when moving the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg from its original Mar. 7 date, the earliest it has ever been on the calendar, to Apr. 25. But when the racing body made its decision, Florida’s COVID-19 numbers were rising. It was quite possible that if the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg went ahead as scheduled, there would be no spectators. On Mar. 5, city officials unanimously voted to allow 20,000 fans to see the race live.

For the first time since Mar. 14, 2010, when the season started in Brazil for the São Paulo Indy 300, the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg has lost some of its luster. There is something special about the first race. It is not on the level of the Daytona 500, but other than the Indianapolis 500, it is IndyCar’s version of Daytona.

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By the time 2022 rolls around, IndyCar may very well be positioned to get back to as normal a racing season as they have in the past. With COVID-19 numbers on the decline and vaccinations widely available, the NTT IndyCar Series can put the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg back where it belongs.

Edited by Sandeep Banerjee
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