Grand Prix praised as 'beautiful' St. Petersburg tradition

Fans of the Grand Prix say the setting makes the race something special.

Published March 30 2015
Updated March 30 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — In the cool shadow of the Mahaffey Theater, with white yachts in the bay to the left and the glittering Salvador Dalí Museum to the right, Bruce Yargeau sipped his beer and opened his arms. Below him, Indy cars thundered through the streets of St. Petersburg, zipping along the water's edge and sending echoes of the engines humming through the air.

"It's part of St. Pete," Yargeau said. "This venue is unbelievable. St. Pete better never get rid of this race."

After over a decade, the IndyCar Grand Prix of St. Petersburg has become part of the fabric of the city. Sunday's 110-lap race marked the sport's season opener.

At about 3:30 p.m., an announcer's voice echoed throughout the grounds, declaring it "time for the most famous words in all of sports." The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Vincent Jackson took the mic and growled: "Drivers, start your engines!"

For the next two and a half hours, cars sped along the 1.8-mile circuit, part of which used a runway at Albert Whitted Airport. Fans pressed themselves against chain-link fences and flooded the grandstands to get a look at the sport's best drivers, including race winner Juan Pablo Montoya and three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Hélio Castroneves.

Patti Youhn, 53, explored the grounds in a Tampa Bay Rays T-shirt, full of pride for her hometown race.

"It used to be a hassle, but it brings so much money to downtown St. Pete, and with all these visitors, it brings international exposure," she said.

The combination of award-winning drivers, a beautiful course along the water, palm trees and abundant sunshine earns the race a comparison to the Formula One Grand Prix of Monaco, Youhn said.

Among the tens of thousands of fans swarming the grounds were players for the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Juan Guerra, a midfielder new to the team, said he and his wife were impressed by the race.

"I like how the whole city comes together for this event," he said. "It was a lot of fun."

Some fans gnawed turkey legs and sipped Bloody Marys while others adjusted their noise-canceling headphones and took naps in the sun. Joe Salleres, a New Yorker, found a spot away from the crowds on what he said was the fastest turn of the race. He peered through the fence as cars powered around the bend and shot down First Street SE.

Growing up in Peru, he said, meant growing up hooked on Formula One racing. The element of street racing adds an appeal for fans and a challenge for drivers, one he said he's excited to see expand in the United States.

"It's a different type of racing. It's not just cars going around in a circle," said Don Ciaffa, 44, of Jacksonville, a longtime race attendee who brought his 5-year-old son Christopher for the first time.

"He likes the sound. He likes the whole jet-fighter deal that it has," he said, as Christopher spooned frozen lemonade into his mouth and danced on the sidewalk.

Selena Johnson and her infant daughter, Maddie, took a break in the shade midway through the race. Johnson said she got into the sport when the Grand Prix came to St. Petersburg, where her family lives, and that attending has become a tradition.

"They can't get rid of it, ever," she said. "We'd be broken-hearted."

Yargeau, 49, said this year marked his fourth time attending. The race draws visitors to St. Petersburg who can then discover its other charms, he said: a clean, welcoming downtown, 70-degree weather in March and palm trees among them.

Beside him, a friend sipped a drink and shook his head.

"It's beautiful, beautiful, gorgeous," said M.J. Johnson of Daytona Beach. "You can't go wrong with this."

Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected] or (727)893-8321. Follow @clairemcneill.