The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg roars into downtown this weekend with the buzz of a new IndyCar Series season, the return of a champion and a strong semblance of normalcy. Here are five things to know about the event, which has been run annually since 2005:
1. It should feel (mostly) like 2019 again.
After two years of revised schedules and limited attendance because of the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s Grand Prix will look and feel much more normal. Mayor Ken Welch said last month he’s expecting a record crowd; the 2019 attendance was estimated at 140,000 over three days, while last year’s event was capped at 20,000. The paddock area is open to spectators, so fans can interact with drivers and teams and get up-close looks at mechanics working on cars.
The Grand Prix is also back in its traditional spot as IndyCar’s season opener. The series kicked off here from 2011-19 but shifted because of the coronavirus.
Two notable differences: The race was pushed up two weeks to help secure a national broadcast window on NBC. The only other February Grand Prix was the inaugural event in 2003.
The Grand Prix has added a party at North Straub Park featuring appearances from many drivers (including reigning IndyCar champion Alex Palou). It runs from 4-6 p.m. Saturday with fireworks at 8.
2. Belleair’s Colton Herta will again be a factor.
The 21-year-old won the pole here last year, then led a race-record 97 laps to cruise to victory. That was enough to let Herta, who moved to Pinellas County in 2020, add another notable triumph for Champa Bay. Herta finished with three victories (tied for most in the series) and snagged two more poles in his No. 26 Honda to end the season fifth in points. Considering his talent and the success of his Andretti Autosport team, Herta will enter the weekend as one of the favorites.
Herta will not be the only local driver participating this weekend. Though St. Petersburg resident Sebastien Bourdais (a two-time Grand Prix winner) is no longer in IndyCar, Tampa’s Glenn McGee and St. Petersburg’s Dante Tornello are both scheduled to compete in the MX-5 Cup races.
3. Helio Castroneves is back.
Castroneves’ three Grand Prix wins (2006, 2007, 2012) are the most ever, but he hasn’t competed here since losing his full-time IndyCar ride with Team Penske after 2017. Castroneves attended the event several times as a spectator and said it was “absolutely horrible” to be stuck watching instead of driving.
The 46-year-old Brazilian will be back on the course this week with Meyer Shank Racing after winning his historic fourth Indianapolis 500 last year.
“That feeling that I always had is still there,” Castroneves said Tuesday. “I can’t wait.”
4. Jimmie Johnson is back, too.
The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion wrecked twice and finished 22nd in the 24-car field last year in his Grand Prix debut. It was only his second IndyCar race and his first on a street course, so the learning curve was steep.
Johnson, 46, only raced on road and street courses last year but is on board for a full season this year in Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 48 Honda. We’ll see whether he can improve on a rough first season (no finishes higher than 17th).
5. IndyCar has a female driver again.
It’s Tatiana Calderon, a 28-year-old Colombian who will be driving the No. 11 Chevrolet for AJ Foyt Racing. IndyCar and the Grand Prix have a history of female drivers, but not recently. The last woman to drive in IndyCar’s St. Petersburg race was Simona de Silvestro in 2015; her fourth-place finish in 2011 is the highest ever by a female in the event.
Calderon will compete on the series’ road and street courses, which will make her the first female driver to have a regular IndyCar seat since de Silvestro in 2013.
If you go
Friday-Sunday, downtown St. Petersburg. Track is at First St. S and Fifth Ave. S.
Main race: Noon Sunday TV: NBC
More info: For details on tickets, parking, event schedule and more, visit gpstpete.com.