ST. PETERSBURG — From the ceremonial opening lap to a tribute decal on two-time winner Helio Castroneves' No. 3 car, the three St. Petersburg police officers shot and killed in the line of duty this year will have a strong presence in Sunday's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
That first lap will feature three St. Petersburg police vehicles, representing canine Officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz and Sgt. Thomas Baitinger, who died in January, and Officer David Crawford, who died last month. Family members, including Lorraine Yaslowitz and her three children and Crawford's wife, Donna, and some friends from the Police Department have accepted invitations to meet with Castroneves before the race. Baitinger's wife, Paige, is out of town visiting his family in Wisconsin.
"We are excited about this event," Lorraine Yaslowitz said via e-mail Wednesday. "It's another grand event to honor Jeff, which is so much a part of our healing as a family. I know this is something our children will remember always and is a part of their journey here on earth without their daddy. So we are honored to take part in things like this!"
Yaslowitz's children — Caleb, 12, Haylie, 8, and Calen, 5 — will join a group of about 40 middle and high school students from St. Petersburg who will meet Castroneves before the race as part of the Shell Fuel for Success program, which has hosted similar events at NASCAR races. As a tribute, Castroneves' car will carry a black-and-white decal bearing the names of all three officers and three St. Petersburg police badges.
"It's a nice thing to do. It's the right thing to do," Castroneves said by phone Wednesday. "Certainly for the people who protect us every day, to the police who lost their lives protecting us, to put their names on my car, it's an honor. Hopefully we can shine those names on Victory Circle."
The decal on the rear of Castroneves' car will be a blur for fans taking in the downtown race, but for the families and colleagues of the three officers killed, the small gesture will mean something special.
"It's a great opportunity to recognize our fallen heroes, what they brought to our department and all they've done for the community," said Sgt. Carl Watts, who helped select the children for the program. "This is something we're very proud of and honored to have the opportunity."
The children are each given a T-shirt and cap as well as admission to the race as part of the Fuel for Success program, which is working with the IndyCar series for the first time this weekend. Getting the families of the fallen officers involved was the idea of Todd Smith, an officer with the Colton, Calif., Police Department who will be in town this week to lead the program.
Smith heard about the shootings and saw an opportunity to reach out to the families. He got permission from St. Petersburg police to include the tribute decal, which reads "CASTRONEVES' CREW" with three badges and the officers' names, on the vehicle.
"We normally do whatever we can for another department," Smith said. "We were excited to be able to do something for them, and they were ecstatic about it. As small as the decal is, if they see their father's name on there, for the kids, it's going to be exciting. I think the crowd will be behind that car, and if he could actually win the race, that would be something special."
Castroneves has won the St. Petersburg race twice before, and he said the tribute and chance to speak with the children give him extra motivation for a strong showing.
"I've never had a chance to do anything related with kids before, and now, 'Wow,' " he said. "Castroneves' Crew is really nice, and I'm excited to be a part of this. Especially being a dad now, I know how much they cherish that. I'm happy they get a unique and special event like IndyCars. I'm fortunate to be able to do that, and honored."
The opening lap will be taken by Yaslowitz's Chevy Tahoe, Baitinger's Chevy Impala and a Ford Crown Victoria representing Crawford, who did not have a take-home vehicle. The vehicles have been emblazoned with the officers' names and have been making appearances at events and fundraisers all over the area. The families will ride in the police vehicles as officers drive them around the course as part of the ceremonial lap.
Then a professional driver will climb into one of the St. Petersburg police vehicles, which will be used as a pace car.
A mix of middle and high-school age kids from St. Petersburg will be participating. Some are at-risk, some are disadvantaged and some are being rewarded for their good citizenship and good grades, Watts said. The trip is a boost to some and a reward for others.
Watts played Arena football before joining the force 18 years ago. In both careers, he said, he always has reached out to the young people in the community.
That has become even more important in light of the Feb. 21 death of Crawford, according to police, at the hands of an armed 16-year-old.
"I think it's important that we give back to our youth," he said. "They're the future. We have to get involved. We have to shape them, mold them and be a part of their lives."
The kids will have their photo taken with Castroneves and get autographs. They'll be able to tour the staging area and stay to watch the race.
"After that, the kids will get to walk around and see what it's like on race day," Watts said. "They'll get to watch the race and have a good time."