ST. PETERSBURG — The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg that kicked off Friday was neither as eerie as the one that started and stopped in March or as lively as the ones that have made this event a crown jewel of the IndyCar Series.
Instead, one of the Tampa Bay area’s largest organized events of the COVID-19 era was somewhere in the middle —a scaled-down, face-covered, socially distanced, heavily sanitized version of the annual three-day, downtown festival.
“It is a different environment,” said St. Petersburg’s Rosalee Fortune, who has attended every Grand Prix since the inaugural 2003 race. “A different feel.”
Some of those differences were obvious as soon as you approached the gates. Security guards enforced temperature checks and face coverings as strictly as they did bag screenings. Cleaning stations were everywhere — 45 hand-sanitizing stations, 44 hand-washing stations and a pair of hand-washing trailers.
The schedule was pared down. Before the shutdown, IndyCar planned a party at North Straub Park to celebrate what was supposed to be the season opener. That didn’t happen.
The annual 5K run moved from the track to a virtual event. Four races were cut from the March schedule, and IndyCar scrapped its usual Friday practice sessions.
Some of the other changes were less apparent. The floating bar was gone. Radio scanners aren’t available for rent. The paddock wasn’t as active. An event that’s normally very accessible to fans had fewer opportunities for autographs or meet-and-greets.
Spectators could still buy lemonade or beer, die-cast cars or T-shirts, donut bites or chicken on a stick. But there weren’t as many shops, stands or trucks around to buy them from.
“I’m trying to support the vendors because I feel bad for them,” Fortune said, “but I can only eat and drink so much.”
With attendance limited to 20,000 fans — instead of the 130,000-plus who usually come over three days — the grounds didn’t buzz as loudly when the engines stopped. But the race will still host one of the largest crowds to watch an athletic event since the spring shutdown.
And any crowd is better than the empty stands IndyCar veteran Graham Rahal raced in front of for much of the season.
“Yeah, it’s not a packed house, OK?” said Rahal, the 2008 Grand Prix winner. "It’s a restricted deal still. But it is nice to see people.
“... A lot of these people have been through a lot, and to be able to come out to the races, see the cars, get up close enough to the cars and see some of the drivers, that’s what it’s all about.”
Those spectators could fan out responsibly as they roamed the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street course. Lines were shorter. Bleachers were less crowded. Thirteen people spread out across the top row of the grandstands at Dan Wheldon Way to watch one of the morning practices.
“It’s almost like I’m at my own private race,” said St. Petersburg’s Elizabeth Rench, who has had the same Turn 10 seats for a decade.
With no end of the pandemic in sight, Friday was the clearest sign yet of what a major event in the Tampa Bay area will look like during the COVID-19 era, as Super Bowl 55 nears.
Different sights. Different sounds. A different environment. A different feel.
“It’s different,” Rench said, “in a good way.”
Firestone extends sponsorship
Firestone will remain the title sponsor for the Grand Prix for another three years.
The company has extended its naming rights — which began in 2014 — for the annual IndyCar Series event through 2023, officials announced Friday morning.
Event organizers also announced the dates for the next three race weekends: March 5-7, 2021; March 11-13, 2022 and March 10-12, 2023.
The event is being held this weekend after the coronavirus pandemic forced its postponement in March as IndyCar’s championship race but will move back to its usual season-opening status next year.
Grand marshal announced
Tampa’s Thaddeus Bullard — the WWE superstar who performs as Titus O’Neil — was announced Friday as the event’s grand marshal. He’ll participate in pre-race events and give the command for IndyCar drivers to start their engines.