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What to know about this week’s Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

The IndyCar Series opens Sunday. Here’s what to know about the schedule, the drivers and the coronavirus.
With the city of St. Petersburg serving as the backdrop, IndyCars make their way through Turn 10 during warmups on race day at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg last year.
With the city of St. Petersburg serving as the backdrop, IndyCars make their way through Turn 10 during warmups on race day at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg last year. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Mar. 11, 2020

With festivities for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg starting today (before really picking up Friday through the weekend), here’s a look at what you need to know about the 16th annual event:

What’s happening today?

The event kicks off with some karting events at the track, including the mayors’ karting challenge. From 4-8 p.m., there’s the Kart 4 Kids Pro-Am and auction, with proceeds going to Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.

What’s new to the event this year?

The big Thursday event. The Grand Prix will have a party in the park at St. Petersburg’s North Straub Park (400 Bayshore Drive NE), featuring cars, food trucks, prizes and fireworks. It runs from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Drivers scheduled to attend include reigning Grand Prix and IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud, the reigning Indianapolis 500 winner.

Also, the Sunday morning drivers’ meeting is scheduled to be open to the public. That’s when drivers, well, meet to go over the race-day rules with officials.

Related: Grand Prix: The line between video games and racing isn’t blurring. It’s disappearing.

What’s new to the series?

IndyCar’s aeroscreens will debut on the series’ cars. Think of them like giant windshields, almost, although they look kind of like the front of a fighter jet. They’re designed to keep debris from hitting drivers’ heads. Because this is the first race with the additions, there are some unknowns (visibility, for instance) over the 100-lap race.

Also of note, IndyCar has a new boss: Roger Penske, the longtime owner of powerhouse team Team Penske.

Racing legend and Team owner Roger Penske looks on from the pit box of IndyCar driver Will Power during the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg last year.
Racing legend and Team owner Roger Penske looks on from the pit box of IndyCar driver Will Power during the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg last year. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

When do the races start?

Friday. Two of the support series — USF2000 and Indy Pro 2000 — race Friday. There are six races Saturday and five more Sunday, culminating with the IndyCar season opener at 3:30.

Related: How the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg became one of IndyCar’s crown jewels

What’s the IndyCar schedule?

The top series at the event will practice twice Friday (10:45-11:30 and 3-3:45). There’s another practice Saturday (10:45-11:30) before qualifying starts at 2:40. They’ll have a half-hour warmup at 10:25 before the race. You can see the full Grand Prix schedule here.

Is it on TV?

Yes, it will be shown on NBCSN.

How is the coronavirus affecting the event?

The Grand Prix has not announced any significant changes to its schedule. However, race officials say they will have more hand-washing/hand sanitizer stations and will do more disinfecting of things like handrails during the day. Driver Graham Rahal said he doesn’t expect to do much differently because of the virus, aside from making sure he’s washing his hands a lot.

Who are the favorites to win?

Team Penske, as usual. The team has won nine of the last 14 races, with Newgarden winning last year. He and teammates Will Power and Simon Pagenaud will probably be in the mix again. And maybe this is finally the year for five-time series champ Scott Dixon, who has won (almost) everywhere else in his illustrious career.

Where can I follow along live?

I’ll be out there all weekend, so follow me on Twitter @MBakerTBTimes. Veteran Grand Prix photographer Dirk Shadd has been shooting the event for us for years; his great work is @DirkShadd.