The March timeline of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg belongs in a time capsule as the perfect summation of how quickly the novel coronavirus shut society down.
But by Thursday morning, spectators were barred from one of the Tampa Bay area’s biggest sporting events. And 23 minutes before noon Friday, a red flag ended the Grand Prix mid-session.
From full-go to called-off in 48 hours.
“Unbelievable,” two-time Grand Prix winner Will Power said.
Seven months later, it’s all still unbelievable. The eerie quiet. The empty bleachers. The frantic rush to get home as the outbreak was becoming a pandemic.
The Grand Prix will try to finish what it started tomorrow when cars return to the downtown street course for the first time since that March 13 red flag. Instead of serving as the IndyCar Series' season opener, St. Petersburg is set to crown its series champion Sunday in one of the area’s largest gatherings of the COVID-19 era.
It’s more than an annual chance for the series and city to showcase themselves. It’s an opportunity to bring positive closure to the surreal scene where U.S. sports ground to a halt and the gravity of the pandemic became clear.
“You know when there’s a pivotal moment in a scenario or a story that makes you realize the magnitude of it?” NBC Sports IndyCar announcer Leigh Diffey said. “That was the moment.”
As cars rolled into practice that Friday morning, the atmosphere felt unearthly, if not apocalyptic.
A burger stand with no grill. A party pit without a party. Signs welcoming fans who weren’t there.
Instead of the buzz of spectators milling around, Indy Lights driver David Malukas could hear street cars driving by.
“It was almost like a ghost town,” Pirelli GT4 America driver Drew Staveley said.
But competing at a ghost town was better than nothing. The NBA, NHL, MLB, NCAA and almost everything else had already shut down, so the Grand Prix was the only major U.S. sporting event going on.
One series after another took the track as engineers fine-tuned cars. Workers in the media center tested technology for virtual interviews.
Staveley pushed his Mustang hard to get ready for the green flag he expected Saturday, while Jarett Andretti took it easy in his McLaren. Why risk wrecking a car for a race that might not happen?
Behind the scenes, organizers prepared to pull the plug. Five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon learned how serious it was when he ran into race co-owner Kevin Savoree at breakfast.
“He was thinking within the hour he was going to get a message saying we were all going home,” Dixon said.
The message finally arrived via red flag, with 10 minutes left in the Pirelli GT4 America practice. Staveley assumed it meant someone had wrecked on the slippery track. It wasn’t until he saw the stillness at the usually-hectic paddock that he understood.
Less than four hours into the three-day event, the Grand Prix was over. A new race began for Staveley, Andretti and everyone else:
How fast can we get home?
Because everything about the coronavirus pandemic was new, drivers were searching for answers. Was it safe to have dinner at a restaurant? Were grocery stores really running out of toilet paper? Would martial law take over?
It was the same uncertainty the rest of society faced — except they were tackling it hundreds of miles from home.
“We’re thinking worst case,” Staveley said. “The country is shutting down.”
Andretti and his crew immediately came up with an exit plan. As soon as they knew why the red flag was out, one of his team members walked over with a laptop opened up to a travel site.
Which flight back do you want?
“Before I even took my helmet off,” Andretti said, “I had my flight home.”
He ended up not using it; Andretti drove back to North Carolina with his mom and sister instead.
Staveley and his team thought about piling in their rental car and driving all the way back to Utah but settled on the first flight out Saturday.
The experience was even wilder for NBC’s Calvin Fish. He called Diffey when he landed Friday morning to let him know he was headed for the Hilton St. Petersburg Bayfront.
“Well,” Diffey replied, “you can come to the hotel, but we’ll be turning back around and going back to the airport. It’s canceled.”
Fish went to the hotel, anyway, to use the bathroom and change his flight. Then he hopped in an Uber with Diffey to go back to the airport.
Seven months after the shutdown, memories of the Grand Prix’s March madness remain fresh.
With no race to train for, Power remembers scrapping his strict diet for a pick-me-up piece of chocolate cake. Staveley can still recall his room number at the Best Western (214), while Andretti knows he ate a vegan coffee cake muffin for breakfast.
Diffey will never forget standing in his room at the Hilton when his boss called to tell him there would be no green flag.
“For an event like this to get called off, OK, now it’s real,” Diffey said. “Now this is super real.”
Looking back, the Grand Prix was a turning point for St. Petersburg and sports. When Staveley and his 12 colleagues rolled off the track, it was the start of a two-month shutdown of major U.S. athletics. It was an impossible-to-ignore local warning that everything in society was about to change.
The red flag, then, was more than the end of a random March practice session. It was the checkered flag for the pre-pandemic era.
“We were,” Andretti said, “like the last stand.”