ST. PETERSBURG — The City Council took issue with the rapid racing rise of Nikita Johnson.
Specifically, his helmet.
It had a Florida flag on top, but that’s not local enough for a kid in Gulfport. So at a 2019 meeting acknowledging that year’s Grand Prix, the Council presented the 10-year-old a St. Petersburg helmet (complete with pelicans and 727s) and a message: One day, we’ll see you racing here.
“We didn’t think it’d be now,” said Johnson’s dad, Obie.
Johnson, now 14, is set to make his Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg debut this weekend as the youngest driver across the event’s six series.
Though Johnson is far from the first driver to call St. Petersburg his home track, few can match his local pedigree.
He was born in Clearwater, lives a short drive from the street course and attended Admiral Farragut Academy in St. Petersburg until pivoting to an online school. He was named after Nikita Alexeev, the Lightning’s 2000 first-round pick who spent three seasons with Tampa Bay, and defenseman Mikhail Sergachev is a family friend. When Johnson wasn’t among the thousands of fans attending the Grand Prix, he watched from home.
“Now I can finally race in my hometown Grand Prix,” Johnson said.
His path to the 1.8-mile street course spans thousands of miles but started by chance 15 minutes away at Bert Smith BMW. Johnson was 4 or 5 when an employee there noticed his NASCAR car seat and told his family about Andersen Racepark in Palmetto. By that afternoon, Johnson was speeding around in a go-kart.
Laps in Palmetto led to bigger races in Ocala, then national events, then international trips to Italy and Germany — all before he turned 10.
“It’s just been a progression,” his dad said.
The progression continued with an eventful 2022. Johnson finished third in the USF Juniors series (the first rung on the four-step ladder to IndyCar). After turning 14 in May, he added races from the next series, USF2000, and was runnerup at Portland.
Things sped up this winter when Johnson tested at Formula One tracks all over Europe — Austria, Germany, Switzerland, England. When a handful of teams contacted him afterward, the idea of becoming a professional race car driver started to feel less like a dream and more like a possibility.
“I think I can make it, if they think I can,” Johnson said.
This season will mark his biggest tests yet with a double-duty schedule. In the U.S., he’ll drive for VRD Racing and try to win the USF2000 championship to keep moving toward a future in IndyCar. Once he turns the minimum age of 15, he plans to start his path up the Formula One ladder by driving in the Formula4 Italian Championship. He expects to make his debut at Belgium’s Spa-Francorchamps three days after his 15th birthday.
It’s a tough schedule for anyone — March features two races in St. Petersburg, two in Sebring, two tests in Italy plus another in Belgium — but his family believes it’s his best route. If he can’t accomplish his goal of becoming the next American driver in Formula One, his U.S. experience will help him latch on in IndyCar.
“You’ve got to keep the options open at this point,” his father said.
If the idea of mapping out a career path for a high school freshman who is still in braces sounds intense, it’s merely a reflection on the cut-throat nature of motorsports. Obie Johnson said this season will cost half a million dollars (minus whatever can be negated by sponsors) and a years-long road to F1 is roughly $15 million. Every edge matters with on-track results and off-track partnerships.
But the first order of business is for Johnson to handle things Saturday and Sunday in his first races at his home track, just down the road from where it all began.
“Of course you always have those butterflies before you go race, but I think this time will have a bit more butterflies,” Johnson said. “I’ve just got to make it through Turn 1 and see the checkered (flag) first.”
Notable Grand Prix locals
Sebastien Bourdais: A native of France, the former IndyCar Series driver moved to St. Petersburg and won the Grand Prix in 2017-18.
RC Enerson: An alumnus of New Port Richey’s Gulf High, Enerson hasn’t raced in an IndyCar event here but won in 2014 in the USF2000 series at age 16.
Colton Herta: The California native, Belleair resident and IndyCar championship contender led 97 of 100 laps to win the 2021 Grand Prix.
Glenn McGee: The Town ‘N’ Country resident won the pole last year in the Mazda MX-5 Cup race.
Tristan Vautier: Another Frenchman who moved to St. Petersburg, Vautier led every lap of his debut in what is now called the Indy NXT series (IndyCar’s version of Triple-A baseball) in 2012 and raced in his first IndyCar race here the next year.
Dan Wheldon: The late St. Petersburg resident won the Grand Prix in 2005 on his way to an IndyCar championship.
Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg
Friday-Sunday, downtown; the 1.8-mile, 13-turn track uses the streets circling Pioneer Park, the Duke Energy Center for the Arts and The Dalí Museum, and extends onto the runways at Albert Whitted Airport.
Main race: 12:30 p.m. Sunday TV: NBC
More info: Details on tickets, parking, event schedule and more here.