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Use local knowledge to take a victory lap at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

Top spot off the track

The rooftop of the Pier is a great place to see the cars zooming around from afar. And it's an excellent spot to catch the Red Bull Air Show if you're not interested in the race itself. And the military fighter jets that come screaming across the bay do many of their maneuvers overhead. (They're LOUD, so warn small children beforehand what to expect.) Add a beverage and a snack from Cha Cha Coconuts and you've got a great outing for the day. (Pier valet parking is only $4.)

On celeb watch

A little farther afield from the action, you can establish a strategic position on the veranda of the Vinoy (501 Fifth Ave. NE) to see if you can catch any celebs in town for the race, or perhaps some of the drivers themselves after they've put in a day's work.

Racing pinup girl Danica Patrick (1), Dancing With the Stars winner Helio Castroneves (2) and popular driver Dario Franchitti (3) — married to Ashley Judd — are all racing. Also keep an eye out for defending champion Will Power (4) (C'mon, is that his real name?)

Inside the gates

Red Bull Air Show: Look up for stunt aircraft, a skydiving team and a military flyover. There are three shows a day, Friday through Sunday. Also on Sunday, the T-28 Warbird Aerobatic Formation Demonstration Team will take to the sky during the national anthem, about 12:30 p.m.

The Budweiser Clydesdales: The huge horses, which used to be housed at Busch Gardens until it was sold, will make a trip around the waterfront and then be on display by Grandstand 2 throughout race weekend.

Fan zones: The IndyCar Fan Village debuts, featuring interactive simulators and meet-and-greet opportunities with drivers. The 24,000-square-foot Bright House Speed Zone returns, featuring driving simulators and a cafe area.

Autographs

Team Penske drivers Castroneves, Power and Ryan Briscoe will be at the Verizon Wireless store at 4870 Park St., St. Petersburg, at 6:30 p.m. Friday for photo and autograph opportunities. (It's only for an hour, though, so don't be late.)

Other autograph sessions are 1 to 2 p.m. Friday at the Bright House Speed Zone, and 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. and 4:45 to 5:45 p.m. Saturday at the IndyCar Fan Village.

Tips for kids

. One of the best places to watch with kids is Pioneer Park (Turns 8 and 9 of the race). There, you can sit on a shaded bench, or bring a blanket to sit on the lawn for a relaxed atmosphere. Car noises are not as intense, because they're slowing down for turns. It's also near the Bright House Speed Zone with activities for kids.

. Another favorite for kids is Turn 10. You see the cars speeding toward you, and you get a nice breeze off the water.

. For older kids, paddock passes are worth getting to get a close-up view of the cars and the crews. Car teams usually have hero cards at their "garage" area you can get for free. Many drivers will give autographs, but some may have significant lines and crowds.

. If you don't want a paddock pass, a good place to glimpse drivers is the "Gasoline Alley" area between grandstands 06 and 07. Many drivers walk through that area to get to the paddocks.

. Ear protection isn't just for kids. The whole family should have ear plugs, but for little kids, get over-the-ear ear muffs to protect them from the high-volume noise.

In the fast lane

Nightlife bars that will be hopping include Bishop Tavern (260 First Ave. N) (1), which attracts college-aged kids and hip professionals with an eclectic selection of beer. Down the street is Durty Nelly's Irish Pub (149 First Ave. N) for the young, fun and friendly crowd. The Independent (29 Third St. N) (2) is a slick little bierhaus where people sip from its impressive, rotating beer menu at sidewalk tables. With this fabulous weather, you'd be crazy not to check out the rooftop of Push Ultra Lounge (128 Third St. S).

. If you want to try something that's tucked away from the hubbub, there is a new option, The Ale and the Witch (3), in a courtyard — but we blow that secret on Page 28. Sorry.

. Trackside dining: For some restaurants within walking distance of the track, see Page 30.

Vincent Lecavalier

The Tampa Bay Lightning captain will lead the driver parade around the track Sunday morning before the main event. Then at 12:25 p.m. you'll hear him do the big honor: "Drivers, start your engines."

Park it

During the day: If you're headed for the race for the day, consider parking at one of the Pier parking lots for $3 a day. But be warned if you're thinking of parking on the Pier approach: They've added meters, with a four-hour limit. You also can park at Tropicana Field for $10, and catch a free shuttle to the track. The shuttle will operate 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday-Sunday.

Night moves: Parking will be at a premium when the sun goes down and the restaurants rev up with diners. But if you're headed for one of the larger places around Beach Drive — Cassis, BellaBrava, ParkShore Grille, 400 Beach Seafood or Fresco's on the Water — use their valet service. It's quick and just costs you a tip.

Can I get to ...

The Salvador Dalí Museum, the Mahaffey Theater and the Hangar restaurant are behind the barricades during race weekend.

Dalí Museum: The museum will be open during race weekend. The bad news: You will have to pay up to $40 general admission for a race ticket — on top of the museum's $21 admission.

The Hangar: The restaurant closed on Tuesday and will stay closed into next week. If the race ends on time, it will reopen on Tuesday.

Mahaffey: The box office is closed now through Tuesday for general walk-up sales. The box office will be open to Grand Prix patrons from Friday to Sunday (you must have a ticket to enter and go to the Mahaffey box office). There are no shows.

Saturday Morning Market: It's closed this week. It returns to the usual spot next Saturday.

Downtown

Illuminated Night Parade: Get a glimpse of defending champion Will Power and several other drivers, floats and bands. It begins at 7 tonight at Central Avenue and Fifth Street, turns north on Second Street, heads east on First Avenue N, then north on Beach Drive ending at Fifth Avenue N. After the parade, a fireworks display and Party in the Park gear up in North Straub Park. Racing legends, Indy drivers and Budweiser Clydesdales will make an appearance for autograph opportunities.

Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg 5K: It's a chance for runners, walkers and wheelchair racers to get on the race track. You can register Friday in Vinoy Park; race begins at 6 p.m. Benefits the Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation and All Children's Hospital. $30 (donations through pledging encouraged). (416) 453-0739. www.grandprix5k.com.

Music at Jannus Live: The downtown venue has four nights of concerts, three of them free. Tribute bands Alter Eagles and Crossroads: Eric Clapton kick off race weekend at 8 tonight for free. On Friday is Greg Billings Band and Saturn 5 for free; courtyard happy hour starts at 4 p.m., shows about 7. On Saturday is an intimate, solo acoustic show by Citizen Cope at 8 p.m.; $20 advance/$25 day of. And Sunday closes out with Nuthin' Fancy: the Ultimate Lynyrd Skynyrd Tribute for free; gates open at 3 p.m. (727) 565-0551.

. coming Friday

Grand Prix special report in Sports

With reminders of the dangers of racing all about, IndyCar drivers focus on their high-speed craft. Special section, Friday

If you go: The race

This is the IndyCar season opener, plus there are races in other series (Indy Lights, Star Mazda, USF2000 and World Challenge). Gates are open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday-Sunday.

IndyCar schedule: Practices 10:15 a.m. and 3 p.m. Friday, practice 10:10 a.m. Saturday, qualifying 2:30 p.m. Saturday, race 12:30 p.m. Sunday

General admission: $25 Friday or Saturday, $10 for 12 and younger; $40 Sunday only, $15 kids; $45 for three-day pass, $20 kids. Paddock passes, reserved seats and convenience charges extra. Go to gpstpete.com or call (727) 898-4639, ext. 225, for more details or to buy.

Gates: Gate 1 is First Avenue at First Street S and offers ticket sales. Gate 5 is Fifth Avenue at Second Street N and has ticket sales and the will call window.

Use local knowledge to take a victory lap at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg 03/23/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 25, 2011 2:56pm]
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