PALMETTO —When Dante Tornello watched the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on TV as a child, he’d point out one familiar building after another. When he studied at USF-St. Petersburg, he’d hear the engines buzzing from campus.
“There’s always part of me that wanted to be there,” Tornello said.
The 25-year-old St. Petersburg native finally gets that chance this week as a rookie driver in the Mazda MX-5 Cup support series.
His road to the Grand Prix is both long and short. It was short because he grew up nearby. He graduated from the Canterbury School of Florida in St. Petersburg and earned his business management degree from classes based a block or two from the track.
His love for the sport grew simply by listening to the different types of cars on the 1.8-mile street course. Then he attended the race in 2017. Seeing all the different cars — from the elite IndyCar machines to all the feeder series and support races — pushed him even deeper into the sport.
“For me as a driver, that’s where that excitement built up into something further than that,” Tornello said.
His excitement came naturally, starting his long road to the driver’s seat. His father, Robert, drove in endurance races. Tornello remembers going to see his dad race at Sebring International Raceway but being too small to see over the wall.
While some drivers start racing at a young age — reigning IndyCar Series champion Alex Palou was 5 when he started in go-karts — Tornello didn’t. His father wanted him to focus on school first, to either give him something to fall back on in case racing didn’t work out or to provide the business background necessary to succeed in a sport where sponsorships matter almost as much as speed.
After graduating from USF-St. Petersburg in 2018, Tornello truly began his path to the Grand Prix. He spent some time working as an assistant grower at his family’s medical marijuana farm.
“That was a really good opportunity for me to learn work ethic and build upon that as a driver going into a full-time career,” Tornello said.
He took another step toward that career in 2019 when he started racing vintage cars (including a 1974 Porsche). Two years of that gave him the foundation necessary to keep going.
When Tornello was looking for his next stage, he studied Mazda MX-5 Cup races on YouTube. He saw a competitive series with cars battling in tight packs. More importantly, he saw room for personal growth as a developmental driver with Hixon Motor Sports.
“We found this series was absolutely fantastic,” Tornello said Wednesday during the Kart4Kids charity event at Andersen RacePark.
Tornello and his career remain a work in progress. He said he’s not “necessarily making money, per se” in the series, but he is treating it as a full-time job, with his family’s support. He’s dedicated to improving his physical fitness (especially cardio, interval training and weightlifting). He studies the craft through books on engineering and famous drivers. He digs through data and analyzes tracks.
“If you mentally focus on the financial aspect of it, you take away time you could be studying, you could be learning and developing more, which can improve your performance, which further helps the financial aspect of it,” Tornello said. “It’s small sacrifices in some places, which then become benefits later on.”
Tornello made his series debut last month at Daytona, finishing 21st and 27th out of the 31-car fields. He wants this to be the start of a long-term career as a driver.
For now, Tornello is simply grateful to be racing this weekend at a home track he has seen and heard but never fully experienced.
“I’m finally in the position where I get to do that as a driver,” Tornello said. “And it’s an honor and a privilege to be able to do that and potentially help represent St. Pete in the best way I can.”
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.