City, fans real stars of Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

Josef Newgarden takes the checkered flag, but he’s far from the only winner
DIRK SHADD   |   Times  Pictured through the iconic windows of the Mahaffey Theater, fans watch from the observation deck during the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg  on Sunday, March 10, 2019.
DIRK SHADD | Times Pictured through the iconic windows of the Mahaffey Theater, fans watch from the observation deck during the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Sunday, March 10, 2019.
Published March 10
Updated March 11

ST. PETERSBURG — They will give us back our streets now, paving the way for traffic and expired parking meters. We miss them already.

Another Grand Prix of St. Petersburg has come and gone. Our downtown race festival did it again. Congratulate yourselves, folks, then uncover your ears. No more thunder belch of engines or hornet buzz as racers fly by. We miss them already.

Say what you want about IndyCar, but tell me what’s wrong with throwing up walls and walls and fences in this country and it’s all for fun? Tell me what’s wrong with thousands of fans enjoying themselves?

And tell me what’s wrong with little kids playing with their plastic race cars on the grass during the race?

But enough about me.

Sunday was for the 16th Grand Prix and we were all winners again, not just Josef Newgarden, who took 110 laps on the 1.8 mile, 14-turn street course faster than anyone else.

RELATED STORY: Josef Newgarden wins IndyCar’s Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

Newgarden’s name makes it sound like he should be from Germany, but he apparently didn’t clear it with Germany, so his hometown is Nashville and he resides in Charlotte. Sunday, Newgarden grabbed the lead and easily beat defending IndyCar series champion Scott Dixon and Will Power.

But the real star of the show, as always, was the scene itself. Sunny and 80 degrees did not hurt, but this is a people thing, and when fans can mingle with drivers even two hours before a race, it’s a cool thing. Try to hit the Bucs up two hours before a game and you get Apocalypse Now stares. Lightning players are in the zone, too. And none of those athletes will be doing 200 mph.

RELATED: See photos from Grand Prix

For a weekend, downtown St. Petersburg became street race central. Why, we could be Monaco with a little work, if we had a casino or two or James Bond showed up.

Instead, we made do with Tony Dungy, the designated race marshal who told the racers to start their engines. Dungy also took a lap in a two-seat Indy car driven by all-time lead foot Mario Andretti. After completing his lap, Dungy allegedly walked from the car, spun around twice and asked that Shaun King go back in the game.

NFL Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy walks with racing legend Mario Andretti before driving in an IndyCar two seater as grand marshal on race day at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg weekend on Sunday, March 10, 2019 in St. Petersburg. [LUIS SANTANA   |   Times]
NFL Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy walks with racing legend Mario Andretti before driving in an IndyCar two seater as grand marshal on race day at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg weekend on Sunday, March 10, 2019 in St. Petersburg. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]

Locally speaking, it could have gone better. Our two-time defending Grand Prix champion, St. Petersburg’s Sebastien Bourdais, had his bid for an unprecedented three-peat die when his car did the same early in the race. I’m not sure, but I think it was the alternator. Isn’t it always? Better get it in early or you wait all day.

RELATED STORY: Bourdais bows out early

Bourdais said, “We had a good race car.” Ryan Hunter-Reay, who was fast all week, and Ed Jones were also knocked out early. Both men also said they had good cars. There is always a lot of that going around, and around, on race weekend.

It was a good clean show, good, tight racing, though Newgarden killed off any drama down the stretch in another Grand Prix win for Team Penske, its ninth in 16 years, a good thing. Because we hear Roger Penske needs the money. At last report, Penske’s 197-foot yacht, which reportedly was docked here all week, was racing a cruise liner to the Bahamas, you know, for kicks.

The real star of this show was the crowd, which continues to grow, with estimates of nearly 140,000 in attendance for the weekend, and that was just at the Bloody Mary stand.

The real star wasn’t lost on, well, the real stars, who love the course, love the city, love the crowds.

Mayor of St. Petersburg Rick Kriseman ,right, shakes hands with IndyCar driver Sebastien Bourdais before the start of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times]
Mayor of St. Petersburg Rick Kriseman ,right, shakes hands with IndyCar driver Sebastien Bourdais before the start of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

“I think it's the atmosphere,” Dixon said. “The city, as they say, embraces the race and they do. Even walking around downtown, For me, at least living in Indianapolis, it's nice to get some warm weather, especially this week.”

“It’s the atmosphere that makes it great,” Power said. The track is good, but you see the crowd -- the crowd on Friday was awesome. It was a great crowd today. Like Scott said, the city embraces it. It’s tough to make street courses work. It’s stood the test of time.”

“I love this place and I continued to love it. I just hated the results that we've had the last seven years,” Newgarden said. “But the event itself has always been so captivating I think to me and to the series and to this town. There's truly an energy and a buzz about it. It's not the biggest city we go to, and they really light it up for this weekend when we show up. It's kind of like having a vacation on a race weekend, it really is.”

And then it was time to head home. No worries. We had good cars all week.

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

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