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Who won the Grand Prix of St. Pete? A whole lot of hungry race fans

John Romano | The record books will say Colton Herta won by a mile, but the race was more than just the results.
Paul Kneblik, 6, tracks a passing IndyCar with his binoculars as his brother Levi Kneblik, 4, as they enjoy their first time at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Saturday.
Paul Kneblik, 6, tracks a passing IndyCar with his binoculars as his brother Levi Kneblik, 4, as they enjoy their first time at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Saturday. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Apr. 25
Updated Apr. 25

ST. PETERSBURG — Morning is something of a rumor at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. You can tell because, by 8:30 a.m. Sunday, the chicken-on-a-stick concession stand is already losing business to the Margarita Bar next door.

When you go from town to town like a high-speed circus, it seems the rules and norms are just a little different. If it’s okay to have trucks flying off ramps as a warmup act to the big race, then cocktails at daybreak don’t sound terribly irresponsible.

It’s all part of the good fortune of hosting a race on the IndyCar Series, where being a spectator is more immersive than sedentary. You watch and walk a little, you guzzle and gorge a little more.

And so the Grand Prix made a successful return this weekend with semi-local Colton Herta winning a race that, truth be told, was a bit of a snooze. Herta won the pole Saturday, had a 10-second lead halfway through Sunday’s race, and eventually took the checkered flag after leading 97 of the 100 laps.

Even so, the weekend had its charm as well as a potential place in history. Herta, who moved to Belleair last year but still calls California home, has the look and presence of a future star in the sport. In 2019 he became both the youngest winner and polesitter in IndyCar history and now has his sights set on a series championship driving for Andretti Autosport at age 21.

“Herta, without a doubt, seems like the top gun over there,” said runnerup Josef Newgarden, who was the two-time defending champion in St. Pete. “He’s still so young right now, he’s got a lot of runway.”

Which is more than you can say for Jimmie Johnson, who inadvertently provided the weekend’s comic relief. Oh, how sweet it must be for open-wheel enthusiasts to see one of NASCAR’s greatest champions struggling to keep his car pointed in the right direction.

While no one was expecting Johnson, 45, to be an instant contender in a different series, you at least expected him to drive better than your Uncle Norm.

A.J. Foyt Enterprises driver Dalron Kellett fist bumps children in the crowd on his way to the track Sunday.
A.J. Foyt Enterprises driver Dalron Kellett fist bumps children in the crowd on his way to the track Sunday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

A week after finishing 19th in Alabama, Johnson was 22nd in St. Pete after spinning out twice. Worse yet, he apparently could not figure out how to get his car in reverse after running into a wall, and he ended up having a radio conversation with his team that sounded like every exchange you’ve ever had with a AAA operator:

Crew: “Can you back it out?”

Johnson: “It won’t go.”

If it was embarrassing to Johnson, it should have felt like vindication for IndyCar. The series may not have the same American panache as NASCAR, but the level of skill required is undeniable.

Sunday’s race had drivers from 13 countries in the 24-car field, and Herta’s dominance was a nod to the sport’s bloodlines and dedication. Herta’s father Bryan, who was his race strategist on the radio Sunday, was a four-time winner in CART and IndyCar and had Colton honing his driving skill while still in elementary school.

If that seems unnatural, then you must have missed Andretti’s announcement of development deals with Dan Wheldon’s sons, who were born and live in St. Pete. At a press availability to announce the partnership, a reporter asked Oliver and Sebastian Wheldon to give a rundown of their driving careers to this point.

Oliver is 10, and Sebastian is 12.

IndyCars race toward Turn 1 at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Sunday.
IndyCars race toward Turn 1 at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Sunday. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Yet, strangely enough, the question was entirely legitimate. In a world where go-kart racing careers can begin before kindergarten, a 10-year-old should already be taking calls for endorsement deals during recess.

“Everything has kind of happened naturally and I’ve kind of kept going with it. We’ll see where it takes us,” said their mother Susie, who had just given birth to Oliver 10 months before Dan was killed in the 2011 IndyCar season finale. “I can’t deny them that. For me, I would not want them to come to me when they’re 16 or 17 and say, ‘Hey mom, we want to try this.’ That would be too late.”

Yes, time and perspective are measured a little differently in this corner of the sports world. Fans were given temperature checks on the way into the track and were told to socially distance, but the pandemic seemed miles away based on the absence of face coverings.

Maybe that’s to be expected with vaccinations on the rise and the sold-out crowd limited to 20,000 spectators. For the most part, people seemed happy to be outside, happy to have live entertainment, happy to have something to shout about, even if the cars would only zoom past every minute or so.

Thirteen months after the 2020 Grand Prix had to be postponed, this looked like a welcome return. Eat, drink and stop being wary.

IndyCar driver Jimmie Johnson signs the shirt of fan Caroline Gast of Sarasota after the morning practice session Sunday.
IndyCar driver Jimmie Johnson signs the shirt of fan Caroline Gast of Sarasota after the morning practice session Sunday. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.