Updated: Mar 24
It certainly isn’t the pits being in the pits of the biggest race car event in the area. It was a gorgeous, sunny weekend for the 18th Annual Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, which served as the season opener for the NTT IndyCar Series for the 12th time. And I had a behind-the-scenes view to the final race on Sunday, Feb. 27.
The 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary course, which runs along the downtown streets and waterfront, incorporates a section of the Albert Whitted Airport runway that housed the last turn, grandstands, and IndyCar pits.
Richard Lyons, a British racing driver who won Formula Nippon and Japanese GT Championship titles in 2004, secured Pit Passes for me for Sunday’s race. I got a first-hand look at where the teams work on their cars and get drivers ready for the qualifying trials leading up to the 100-lap race held on the final day. Having never been to an Indy race, it was interesting seeing it from the teams’ perspective.
I found Richard working with Turn 3 Motorsport, coaching and training young drivers. As I entered the pit area, Richard told me his two drivers just lost their races. A few minutes later I could see why. Both cars came into the pit with badly damaged fronts. The low-to-the-ground body style and lightweight frame seem to crush easily with the slightest impact. They reminded me of the toy cars my son played with as a child.
When I saw the driver walk out of Turn 3’s trailer, I was surprised at how young he was. I assumed he would be in his 20s, but Richard informed me that his drivers are 14 and 15 years old. This seemed crazy considering they are racing at 130-160 mph and are not old enough to have a regular driver’s license.
As the mechanics worked on the mangled car, I continued to walk along pit row. I explored other teams working on their cars and saw familiar racing names, such as Andretti Autosport, featured on large cargo trailers.
When the 100-lap race began, I went into the hospitality tent to watch the pace car lead the drivers in the first lap and then slip off the course, allowing the cars to pick up speed. A few minutes later the cars zoomed passed me in the blink of an eye, flying around the turn and speeding past the grandstands.
Starting to get hungry and wanting to get a bird’s eye view of the race, I made my way to the restaurant next to the grandstands that had an outdoor patio high above the course.
As I entered the building, I discovered it was a Sheltair FBO, and housed the Hanger Restaurant and Flight Lounge upstairs. I found exactly what I was looking for — a cold Michelob Ultra, a large green salad, and a perfect seat to watch the rest of the race.
The temperature outside was a perfect 80 degrees with a slight breeze and no humidity. I continued to stay perched on the restaurant patio for the final laps, until 28-year-old Scott McLaughlin, who led in 49 of the 100 laps, won his first Indy Car victory for Team Penske.
As I left the track, I noticed downtown was bustling with fans and spectators, happy to be out enjoying a family sporting event and glad that the Grand Prix was back in town.