ST. PETERSBURG — Though it’s been more than a decade since racing star Dan Wheldon died in a crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the legacy of the late St. Petersburg resident is still going strong in the IndyCar Series paddock.
Just ask rookie Kyle Kirkwood.
“He truly inspired me,” Kirkwood said Monday after a ceremonial event to promote the Feb. 25-27 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
The inspiration came from one chance encounter about a dozen years ago, when Kirkwood was 10 or 11. He was racing go-karts at Palm Beach International Raceway, not far from his hometown of Jupiter. Kirkwood looked over and saw Wheldon. He was starstruck at the idea of a big-time IndyCar driver — an Indianapolis 500 and series champion — racing there, too.
Kirkwood walked over to talk to Wheldon, just to ask him how things were going. Wheldon spoke with him for a good 10 minutes.
“It was kind of a magical experience for me, just being able to talk to an IndyCar driver like Dan Wheldon,” Kirkwood said.
The conversation didn’t launch Kirkwood’s career. He didn’t learn any tips that transformed his driving abilities or helped him win more races. He can’t attribute his success — including last year’s championship in the top feeder series, Indy Lights — to those 10 minutes, either.
Kirkwood’s takeaway was subtle but meaningful.
“I just saw his personality, his persona around him, how willing he was to just talk to people,” Kirkwood said. “There was something radiating about him. I’ve always looked up to that moment.”
Kirkwood is still trying to live up to that moment as he enters his rookie season with A.J. Foyt Racing and takes over the No. 14 Chevrolet driven last year by St. Petersburg resident Sebastien Bourdais.
Kirkwood knows what it meant to him to have a real, meaningful conversation with a top-flight driver when he was just a kid. Now that he has risen the ranks to get to one of North America’s top racing series, Kirkwood wants to return the favor to fans and racing’s next generation.
“That’s one of my goals as a driver is to be very upbeat,” Kirkwood said. “I want to talk to everybody and inspire drivers like he did for myself.”
Nuts and bolts
• Kirkwood said he expects to have about 20 friends and family members at the Grand Prix to watch his IndyCar debut.
• St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch said he’s expecting a record crowd this year, coronavirus issues permitting. Attendance has been limited each of the past two years because of the pandemic.
• The Grand Prix announced Welch will serve as the event’s honorary grand marshal; his duties include telling the field to start their engines.
• RP Funding president Robert Palmer said one of the actions by his company in its new role as the race’s presenting sponsor is to invest in marketing along I-4 to try to boost attendance.
• The annual 5K run along the track will not take place again this year. That’s because it’s the Grand Prix is the same weekend as the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic.
If you go
When: Feb. 25-27, downtown St. Petersburg. Track is at 1st St. S. and 5th Ave. S.
More info: For details on tickets, parking, event schedule and more, visit gpstpete.com