ST. PETERSBURG — It only happens once a year. Tires squeal. Engines roar. Race cars screech alongside Tampa Bay at 170 miles per hour.
Starting today, the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will transform downtown into race car central. More than 120,000 racing fans eager to catch a glimpse of crunching metal or cutthroat competition are expected to attend.
"It is the world's fastest drivers in the world's fastest cars," said Jay Gibbs, of Indianapolis, as he waited in line for driving legend Johnny Rutherford's autograph at a Grand Prix event Wednesday at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Tampa. "It's great."
What should I expect at the Grand Prix?
Prepare to elbow your way through crowds of zealous driving fans. Qualifying races are held Friday and the main events are Saturday and Sunday afternoon. Those looking to snag a great seat should head towards the race's main grandstand section near Albert Whitted Municipal Airport. It offers a view of the pits, the start/finish line and the waterfront. The higher you are, the better the view.
Are tickets still available?
Yes. And the more you pay, the more you get. General admission starts at $10 a day, but doesn't include seating. That's okay. To really get a feel for the speed, sound and sudden braking, it's best to walk the 1.8-mile street circuit. Those willing to spend more can pay $110 for three-day admission and a reserved seat in an upper row grandstand section. Big spenders might want to look into the race's $25,000 VIP hospitality suites, private tents that can hold 40 people. Catering is optional. Call (727) 898-4339 for more information.
What else is there to do besides watch the races?
Plenty. Check out spinning and jumping cars in the drifting exhibitions, a concert by MTV crooners Gym Class Heroes, a waterfront Ferris wheel and rock climbing wall, and air shows and parachute teams soaring through the sky.
How else can I get in on all the excitement if I don't want to buy a ticket to the event?
Events across the city will celebrate the Grand Prix all weekend. The Festival of States will host the Grand Prix Illuminated Night Parade at 7 tonight. The city will host a "Fast Friday" block party on Central Avenue from 5:30 to 10 p.m. Baywalk entertainment complex will host live bands from noon to 10 p.m. on Saturday.
What big names might I see?
Drivers Helio Castroneves and Danica Patrick get much of the attention, but true celebrity hounds should look for some of the racing sponsors. Paul Newman supports drivers Justin Wilson and Graham Rahal, Patrick Dempsey backs A.J. Foyt and David Letterman has got Ryan Hunter-Reay's back. Newman and Letterman haven't been spotted in recent years, but you never know. Gov. Charlie Crist and Miss America Kirsten Haglund will be there.