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Grand Prix of St. Petersburg could happen in 2020 after all

The IndyCar Series plans to make the event its season finale but hasn’t finalized a date. October seems likely.
The sun rises over the track as USF2000 cars zoom toward Turn 10 in the first practice session for the eventually postponed Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 13. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg might happen this year, after all.

The IndyCar Series announced Thursday that it intends to reschedule the race, which was wiped out earlier this month because of the coronavirus pandemic. Originally scheduled as IndyCar’s season opener, the Grand Prix is now listed as the series’ “expected finale.”

St. Petersburg is the only race on the updated schedule without a date (October would be most likely), and the city said it’s “still an early idea.” Regardless, Thursday’s announcement is a marked shift from where things stood two weeks earlier, when IndyCar and race officials called it “highly unlikely” and “just not practical” to reschedule one of the region’s biggest annual sporting events.

“Right now our focus is on keeping our residents safe,” Mayor Rick Kriseman said, “but we are still planning for the future and we certainly want our community to recover economically. The race returning could assist in that.”

The Grand Prix — held annually since 2005 — technically began on March 13 in an eerie scene without fans. But cars were called off the track less than four hours into the three-day event.

The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg originally was set to go off as scheduled two weeks ago, but with the grandstands empty. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

Since that decision, IndyCar has remained in constant communication with Green Savoree Racing Promotions, which owns the event. Earlier this week, Kriseman joined those talks.

“I don’t think they’ve ever given up on it,” said Mark Miles, president and CEO of Penske Entertainment Corp, which runs IndyCar.

But there are still some potential potholes to the green flag returning later this year, aside from the obvious uncertainty surrounding the pandemic.

The city’s licenses and permits are specific and would have to be reworked. The 1.8-mile street course usually takes about 250 workers and 25 days to build, but Miles said the Grand Prix could try to trim that timeline by keeping stands up.

Kriseman said the city is “still looking into” things like potential dates and track construction, which affects downtown businesses.

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

The Rowdies could be another complicating factor because Al Lang Stadium sits along the course. Although their season is on hold because of COVID-19, they have home games scheduled for the first three weekends in October. Because IndyCar’s last scheduled race is set for Sept. 20 at Laguna Seca in California, the Grand Prix likely wouldn’t happen until the first weekend of October, when college football, the NFL and baseball’s postseason usually heat up.

Neither Miles nor Kriseman was concerned about St. Petersburg hosting two races five months apart, with the Grand Prix returning to its traditional March date next year.

The areas around the track and grandstands are nearly empty at the IndyCar Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 13. [DIRK SHADD | AP]

If the rescheduling can be finalized, the Grand Prix would honor previously purchased tickets for this year’s event. It would also be a big financial boost to the community. The city has estimated the race’s economic impact at $48 million, and last year’s festival attracted an estimated 140,000 fans over the weekend.

“The expectation of everybody is that it’ll be time to go racing again,” Miles said, “and they are eager to do that.”