Two months to the day after the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg became one of the area’s last big events to shut down, it became the first major local sporting entity to announce its restart in the coronavirus era.
Race organizers announced Wednesday that the annual event has been rescheduled for Oct. 23-25. Instead of its traditional place as the IndyCar Series’ season opener, the Grand Prix will serve as its championship race — hopefully with fans in attendance.
“The City of St. Petersburg stands ready to welcome back the fans of IndyCar, drivers, teams, and sponsors in October…” Mayor Rick Kriseman said in a statement. “I am confident that the race will occur in a manner that puts public health at the forefront."
The city and race tried several different ways to do that in March, just as the pandemic was starting to transform the country.
They added more stations for hand washing and sanitizing and vowed to disinfect surfaces more often. Then they barred spectators from attending. Finally, a few hours into the three-day festival, they called the cars off the course and began dissembling the track.
The Grand Prix reaffirmed Wednesday that public health will remain its top priority in October, too. It plans to allow spectators and will honor previously purchased tickets. But it’s impossible to know what sort of guidelines will be in place five months from now, or whether large public gatherings will even be allowed.
“We couldn't have guessed two days before the original race date what the conditions were going to be when race weekend started,” the Mayor’s Office said. “Everything changes quickly. The first step is just getting this race on the calendar.”
That challenge was hard enough on its own.
When the race was canceled in March, officials called rescheduling the event “highly unlikely” and impractical. It would be too complex to figure out a new TV window, and rebuilding the 1.8-mile street course would be too challenging.
But two weeks later, the City began discussing a restart with the Grand Prix and IndyCar. To reduce the usual 25 days of track construction, some of the grandstands remained in place, just in case. St. Petersburg was the tentative finale on the series’ calendar for a month and a half before details were released Wednesday.
“We hope this offers both Floridians and our race fans something to look forward to later this year as we navigate through these unprecedented times for us all,” said Kim Green, one of the race’s co-owners.
The announcement came as parts of the economy have begun to reopen and on the same afternoon Gov. Ron DeSantis invited professional sports teams to camp in Florida. The NHL, NBA and Major League Baseball all shut down around the same time the Grand Prix did, and all are still figuring out their possible returns.
NASCAR is set to run its first event since the pandemic Sunday at Darlington Raceway without fans. IndyCar plans to start its 15-race season at Texas Motor Speedway on June 6.
The Grand Prix has become one of the series’ crown jewels since its 2003 debut. It drew an estimated 140,000 spectators in 2019, and the city has estimated its economic impact at $48 million.
“It’s a great place to start the season,” IndyCar rookie Oliver Askew said on Twitter, “maybe an even better place to end it.”
In the span of five months, the Grand Prix might do both; the 2021 race is scheduled for March 11-14.
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