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Photo: James Black/INDYCAR

Event Preview: The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

by Frank Santoroski                  @seveng1967

This coming weekend, the NTT IndyCar Series will kick off their 2019 season with a return to St. Petersburg, Florida for what has become known as The World’s Fastest Spring Break Party.

Round one of seventeen for the Series in 2019, The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is held on a temporary street circuit, one of five such races on the schedule. Scheduled March 8-10, 2019, this will be the 16th race for IndyCars in St. Petersburg.

The defending race champion is Sebastien Bourdais, who took back-to-back St. Pete wins in 2017-2018 driving for Dale Coyne Racing. Bourdais, a four-time champion in ChampCar, will return with Dale Coyne to attempt a three-peat.

The IndyCars will run 110 laps for a total race distance of 198.00 miles. Standard road course qualifying procedures will apply.

Support races include action from the Road to Indy ladder series’ Indy Lights, Indy Pro 2000, and USF2000, as well as the Challenge Series TC America and GT4 classes.

About the Track

Constructed along the public roads on the shore of Tampa Bay, the temporary street circuit in St. Petersburg utilizes the runway at Albert Whitted Airport as its front straight. The 14-turn course covers 1.8 miles circling around picturesque Pioneer Park and Al Lang Stadium. The back half of the circuit follows the contour of Bay Shore Drive past the St. Petersburg Yacht Club and Municipal Marina.

A long front stretch ends in a quick right-left combination in turns one and two, that has caused some hairy moments in past races. The braking zone in turn ten, and the hairpin turn 13-14 have offered passing opportunities as well.

Event History

St. Petersburg first heard the roar of racing through its city streets back in 1985, when the SCCA Trans-Am and Can Am series’ raced along the Bay front. The event was short lived, having been plagued by complaints from the locals. The race was shelved in 1990, but returned in 1996 on a course built around Tropicana Field.

The Bay Shore course was modified in 2003, and hosted the CART Series with Paul Tracy taking the win. The event was dropped in 2004 as CART was embroiled in bankruptcy.

The Indy Racing League added the race to its schedule in 2005 with Dan Wheldon, driving for Andretti-Green Racing, taking the win.  After Wheldon, a resident of St. Petersburg, died in 2011, the section of the course between turns 10 and 11 was renamed Dan Wheldon Way in his honor.

Image Courtesy GPSTPete

The event has remained on the IndyCar schedule ever since, growing into an event that has become quite popular with both fans and drivers.  St. Petersburg was first scheduled as the IndyCar season-opener in 2009, and has served as the first stop on the calendar continuously since 2011.

In 2008, Graham Rahal won at St. Pete becoming the first ChampCar transplant to win in the newly-merged series. In doing so, he also became the youngest winner in a major American open-wheel race at the age of 19 years, 93 days.

Helio Castroneves put his stamp on this place in 2012 becoming the first, and as of this writing, only three time St. Petersburg winner. He dedicated the race win to Dan Wheldon.

In 2018, Rookie driver Robert Wickens won the pole in his first series start. A heated on-track battle with the 2016 Indy 500 winner, Alexander Rossi, culminated in last lap contact allowing Bourdais to slip through for the win.

The most prolific winners of the Grand Prix have been Team Penske, with eight wins between Helio Castroneves, Ryan Briscoe, Will Power and Juan Pablo Montoya.

About the Field

Photo: Joe Skibinski/INDYCAR

The 2019 NTT IndyCar Series Field represents one of the strongest, talent-packed top-to-bottom lineups in all of racing.

24 drivers will take the green flag in St. Petersburg. Of those, four are former winners at at the venue. The aforementioned Sebastien Bourdaus has won twice, as has Team Penske’s Will Power. James Hinchcliffe and Graham Rahal have one win apiece.

The 20 drivers running the full schedule will be joined by part-timers Charlie Kimball, Ben Hanley, Jack Harvey and Ed Jones, who splits seat time in the No. 20 car with team owner, Ed Carpenter.

Scott Dixon, who drives the PNC Bank Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing is the reigning Series Champion. A native of New Zealand, Dixon is a five-time Series Champion, an Indy 500 winner and the subject of the motion picture, Born Racer.  His career statistics see him trailing only A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti on the all-time win list. A win on the streets of St. Petersburg has, however, eluded him thus far.

Thirteen of the entered drivers are IndyCar race winners, seven have won championships in IndyCar or CART/Champcar, and six are Indy 500 winners. Rookies in the field at St. Petersburg will include Americans Colton Herta and Santino Ferrucci, Swedish drivers, Marcus Ericsson and Felix Rosenqvist, and from Great Britain, Ben Hanley, debuting with a brand new team, DragonSpeed racing.

Drivers in the series represent twelve different countries around the globe, making it a truly international field.

About the Series

The current NTT IndyCar Series was born out of the Indy Racing League, which absorbed the rival ChampCar World Series in 2008. In the years since the reunification, the series has seen steady growth in attendance and television ratings. For 2019, the Series announced that all of its US television broadcasts will be provided by NBC-TV, adding consistency to the coverage that was formerly shared between NBC and ABC/ESPN.

The positive growth in recent years bodes well for the Series that is owned by Hulman and Company. The centerpiece of the series is the Indianapolis 500, which will run for the 103st time in May. Mark Miles is the Chief Executive of Hulman and Company, and Jay Frye is the President of Indycar.

Teams in the NTT IndyCar Series use a common chassis, produced by Dallara, while Chevrolet and Honda are the engine partners. Each supplies a 2.2 Liter V-6 turbocharged engine that is capable of producing over 700 hp at 12200 rpm. All cars in the series run Firestone Firehawk tires.

Where and When to Watch

Photo: Chris Jones/INDYCAR

Tickets for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg can be purchased here. Ticket prices range from $20 for a single-day general admission up to $135.00 for a three-day upper level grandstand seat with plenty of options in between, including options for paddock passes and festival admission.

Television coverage will be provided by NBC-SN.  Race coverage will begin at 12:30 pm EDT on Sunday March 10. Additional coverage of the weekend action, including all practice and qualifying sessions will be available with the  NBC Sports Gold IndyCar Pass.  

Other coverage options include Sirius XM radio (Sirius:209, XM:212). Fans can also keep up with all of the action on the IndyCar Mobile app.

 

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