Grand Prix of St. Petersburg: Running on empty brings drivers, fans together

Published March 11 2017
Updated March 12 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — Running on empty last May, Alexander Rossi won the Indianapolis 500. He made it.

Running on empty last month, Chase Elliott lost the Daytona 500. He didn't make it.

Brothers, we've been there, done that. Sort of.

Running out of gas while going for it is as American as it gets. True, race car dudes are going for greater glory, trophies and cash prizes. The rest of us? Just get us to exit 342 and the Wawa.

Few of us know what it's like to hit a 400-foot home run or run for a 100-yard touchdown. Few of us have ever been robbed of a goal or rejected as we try to dunk. But running out of gas … who hasn't done that? Who hasn't felt that surge of courage when the fuel light blinks on? Who hasn't tried to dance with the devil and outrun the Big E — E for empty?

"It's a connecting point," NASCAR driver Paul Menard said. "We can all relate to running out of gas. No matter where you are, who you are."

Running out of gas unites us. Even this weekend at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

One nation, under fumes.

I ran out of gas in 1989, coming back from the Daytona 500, where Darrell Waltrip, nearly ran out of gas, drafted and coaxed his car to victory. I thought "go for it" near Bradenton. There were no cellphones. There was no AAA card. I hoofed it to the next exit for a can of life. The Walk of Shame. Should have drafted more.

We've all been there. Including the most talented racers on the planet.

Rossi ran out of gas coming out of Turn 4 at Indy. And he had computers and engineers and assistant engineers. He simply coasted to the checkered flag as an American hero. He beat the Big E.

He never has run out of gas in real life.

"I don't see the need to push it," Rossi said. "Why not put gas in the car?"

"I was running second to Mike McLaughlin in Charlotte in '90 something, and I made a move and I passed him," NASCAR racer Michael Waltrip said. "I thought, 'Holy crud, that was an awesome move I made.' Then I looked up and saw that he was out of gas."

Waltrip has come up dry himself:

"I was in my Toyota hybrid. I was near a gas station, but I was curious how far my hybrid would take me if I ran out of gas. The answer was from here to that wall right there. I had to get a couple of buddies to push me in."

Don't you love it?

I've often thought of other ways to bring racing closer to the people.

Like, just for once, could drivers be required to pull off and find a parking space in downtown St. Petersburg?

Like, just for once, could they try and put a child seat in. Good luck with that belt, guys.

How about having to do their own refueling? See Cashier Inside. Slows you down every time.

Five words: Long Bridge Ahead Check Gas.

Where were we?

"Fans should never run out of gas," Waltrip said. "They don't have anything to gain. You stretch it in NASCAR, you might win a race. You stretch it going to the grocery store and your kids might not get any groceries."

Former IndyCar series champion and Indy 500 champion Tony Kanaan said he has run out of gas in races:

"Oh, plenty of times."

Kanaan nearly ran out Wednesday while driving his Honda Pilot from his Miami home to St. Petersburg.

"On Alligator Alley, when you drive across from there to here, there are no gas stations," he said. "You play a little trick. You turn the AC off. And you actually close your mirrors to be less drag."

Write that down, kids: turn off AC, fold mirrors, less drag.

IndyCar driver Josef Newgarden was there last year. He was on a driving trip in his Chevy Tahoe. His girlfriend was with him:

"I told her we were looking pretty close on fuel here, but we wanted to make this one stop, a few exits up, where there was a Chick-fil-A. I said it was going to be close, within a couple of miles. Let's see if we can make it. I told her it will be fun to experiment."

Girlfriend stared at him.

"We ended up a couple miles short," Newgarden said. "The Tahoe coughed on me. Fortunately, there was another exit right there. I was able to put it in neutral and make it to a gas station. It was fun for me because I was showing my girlfriend what we do on a racetrack when we try and make it on a certain level of fuel. She wasn't happy about it at all. We still hit the Chick-fil-A. Lost just five minutes."

And now back to the reigning Indianapolis 500 champion, who has a travel tip.

"Just fill it up," Rossi said. "No one needs that stress in their life."

Contact Martin Fennelly at or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.