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ST. PETERSBURG — With 10 minutes left in Friday’s fifth practice session at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the green flag turned to red.
There was no announcement over the loudspeakers to explain why 13 cars from the Pirelli GT4 American support series left the track. The answer soon became clear: The Grand Prix had been canceled because of the coronavirus outbreak.
And when those 13 engines stopped, major American sports did, too. The global coronavirus pandemic has shut them all down. “Really there isn't a sporting event left that feels comfortable running, even without fans,” IndyCar Series president and CEO Mark Miles said. “I just think that's reflective of what's going on in the country and in the world.”
The NBA, NHL, MLB, PGA, MLS and XFL had all previously postponed or canceled their seasons because of the global COVID-19 pandemic while IndyCar and NASCAR held out. Just Thursday afternoon, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said the race would go on because the competitors were already here, although spectators would be prohibited.
By late Friday morning, the weight of the nationwide concern and the risk of personnel gathering in the paddock became too much for IndyCar and NASCAR to bear. The leagues announced the cancelation of this weekend’s events nearly simultaneously.
Kriseman said he respects the decision, which unfolded quickly for city leaders. As of 11 a.m., St. Petersburg officials were still planning to release rules prohibiting would-be spectators from congregating outside the track to watch the race through the fencing.
The city values its usual in-kind services at $150,000, and much of that is for police and fire services that are no longer needed. But the cancelation could have a big impact on the local economy. A 2015 city study showed the race weekend injected about $48 million into area businesses.
The decision also reverberates beyond the region, by finally, formally, bringing American athletics to a halt. That means the nation’s last sporting scenes for the foreseeable future took place downtown, at a landscape as surreal as any painting at the neighboring Dalí Museum.
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On a picture-perfect 82-degree day, the grounds of one of the biggest annual events in the city were nearly empty. No line at the margarita bar. No party in the party pit. No fans in the stands.
Instead of roaring engines and buzzing crowds, you could hear the leaves crunching under your feet and the rustle of a security guard thumbing through the sports section.
A groundskeeper strolled the paths with no trash to collect. Signs welcomed fans who weren’t allowed to attend.
The merchandise shops and concession stands that hadn’t already left were either boarded up or eerie shells of themselves. The burger joint had no grill. The meat smoker had no smoke. Forty drink coolers had no drinks to cool.
On and on it went, all around the 1.8-mile track.
Even the things that should have been normal before the announcement weren’t. Team garages in the IndyCar paddock were covered up, with no cars in sight. When public address announcers addressed a public that didn’t exist, they couldn’t stop talking about the bizarre scene, even as they explained why cars were sliding around the track.
Then even that was done.
Moments after the Grand Prix was called off, the remaining vestiges of the event began to disappear.
Workers disassembled microphone stands in the media work room. Teams loaded stacks of tires into their haulers. Officials packed away bottles of bubbly intended for victory circle.
And four and a half hours after cars hit the track to kick off the country’s last major sporting event for who-knows-how-long, two more vehicles started rolling around on the course.
A pair of yellow forklifts, tearing down the track.
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