ST. PETERSBURG — The crowd at this weekend’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg met, if not exceeded, marks from before the pandemic.
Advance ticket sales were a record, and the number of hospitality suites were back to the levels they were before the Great Recession. The Grand Prix does not typically announce official attendance figures, but the grounds looked to be the biggest ever at the event, which began in 2003.
IndyCar Series officials told the Indianapolis Star that the crowd was up 49 percent over the three-day weekend from the previous record, set in 2019. Attendance that year was estimated at 140,000.
“It was great to see such a good crowd …” said two-time Grand Prix winner Will Power, who finished third Sunday. “I think everyone’s enjoying themselves, and it’s great to see fans again, great to do autographs and autograph sessions and see full stands.”
Attendance at the previous two races here was capped at 20,000 per day because of coronavirus restrictions.
Belleair resident Colton Herta, the defending race winner, quickly moved from third to second in the opening corner but never could challenge for the lead.
An apparent miscue in the pits didn’t help. On his first stop, Herta’s No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda didn’t get a full tank of fuel. That forced him to pit slightly earlier than the three drivers he finished behind (winner Scott McLaughlin, Alex Palou and Power).
The fourth-place run is still the best season-opening result the 21-year-old has ever had (eighth, seventh and 22nd).
Jimmie Johnson struggles
NASCAR legend Jimmie Johnson remained a non-factor at his second Grand Prix. The seven-time Cup Series champion finished a lap down and 23rd in the 26-car field. He also drew some barbs from Power for continuing to race contenders hard, despite running near the back of the field.
Johnson had at least three issues during the weekend, including a spinout in Turn 10 during Sunday’s morning warm-up session.
Nuts and bolts
Dallas Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott gave the command for drivers to start their engines for the Indy Lights race.
Matthew Brabham won the race after one Andretti Autosport teammate, Hunter McElrea, wrecked from the lead and another, Christian Rasmussen, ran out of gas while leading with two laps left. It was Brabham’s first race in the top feeder series since 2015.
McLaughlin’s win was the 11th for Team Penske at the Grand Prix:
2006: Helio Castroneves
2007: Helio Castroneves (from the pole)
2009: Ryan Briscoe
2010: Will Power (from the pole)
2012: Helio Castroneves
2014: Will Power
2015: Juan Pablo Montoya
2016: Juan Pablo Montoya
2019: Josef Newgarden
2020: Josef Newgarden
2022: Scott McLaughlin (from the pole)