A Weekend at the 2016 Grand Prix of St Pete

Last week I took a few days off and headed down to Florida to hang out with the kid. This wasn’t just any random trip, however, it’s one we’ve been planning for a few months now. Her school is about 10 minutes from the location of the IndyCar season opener, the Grand Prix of St Petersburg, and being big IndyCar fans, seemed like the perfect location to blow my annual racing budget. There’s nothing better than a street race, and mid-March in St Pete seemed about perfect.

Since she already had a place to stay, I just needed somewhere for me to sleep. Looking at the hotel situation back in early January, I could see I was going to have to get creative. Many of the downtown hotels were near capacity, and the cheapest rates I was finding started at ~$200/night for what are normally low budget hotels, climbing to over $400/night for the 3 and 4 star stuff. That just wasn’t going to work. After a quick search on Airbnb, I found a perfect little studio-ish apartment for 1 that was easily within walking distance from the track. Great, quiet little place with parking that wasn’t more than a 10min walk to the track’s gates, all for a total cost of what the average one night hotel stay in downtown would be.

I drove down Wednesday, with an overnight stop in Ocala so I could arrive in downtown St Pete on Thursday morning. My timing was intentional, as (with a huge amount of help from someone at IndyCar) I’d managed to secure an early birthday present for Bayley, a ride around the track in one of the two-seaters on Thursday at noon. I got in around 10am Thursday just to scout things out, and quickly realized that St Pete doesn’t do things like Baltimore did. At those races, the track and paddock areas weren’t closed in on Thursday, you could walk around pretty freely and check out the activity as the IndyCar and support series teams were unloading the transporters. At St Pete, the track is totally enclosed by Thursday morning, and unless you’ve got a reason to be in there, it’s not happening. A shame if you ask me, as we saw a lot of locals in Baltimore walking around and checking things out. It’s the kind of thing that could possibly draw interest from people who hadn’t planned on buying tickets, if you ask me.

Bayley got in to downtown about 11am and met up with me at a parking garage near the track. After a short walk back to the entrance gate, we presented her IndyCar Experience ticket and walked back to the area near pit exit where the IndyCar Experience haulers were located. Check-in was pretty quick, and gave us a few minutes to relax while we waited for the event to start. While walking around right there, we saw both Mario Andretti and Davey Hamilton come over, both of whom were drivers for the experience. A few shots from prior to her ride:

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After everyone was ready, they walked them across pit exit to where the 3 two-seaters were set up between turns 1 and 2. Everyone already had their fire suits on, but were given headsocks and helmets. Bayley went out in the first group of three, with Davey Hamilton driving her car. Being in that first group proved to be a lucky thing, as for whatever reason, they did two laps, not the usual one lap the groups behind them got. After getting back and hopping out of the car, I could see by the look on her face she had an absolute blast. Again, I can’t thank IndyCar enough for setting this up for us at the last minute. Without giving anything away, I’d like to send a huge thank you to a few key people over there (you know who you are :)). A really special gesture that neither of us will soon forget.

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Friday morning started with me walking the track alone as soon as the gates opened. A good friend of Bayley’s had been in town all week, heading back to her school early afternoon that day, so it gave me a chance to check things out, having never been to this race. For this one, I’d bought grandstand seats near the top of GS 23, which is in turn 10 (here’s the track map for reference), and had also purchased both pit and paddock passes for us. To me, paddock passes are a must for any race, as it gives you closer access to the teams and drivers. We’ve had it for every race (both IndyCar and IMSA) we’ve been to, but this was the first time she was old enough for actual pit passes (generally have to be 18), so I spent the extra money on those, too. Well worth the added cost in my opinion, but more on that later.

Walking around, I found the atmosphere to be pretty much what I expected, sort of a street carnival setup on the inside of the track, with a lot of food, drink, and other vendors all over the track. Plenty of race viewing areas for general admission ticket holders, too. I walked up to our grandstands to see how good the seats were, and was pleasantly surprised at the view, as GS23 provides a great look at the straight coming in to turn 10 and on to Dan Wheldon Way:

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After watching some of the USF200 and Pro Mazda practice, I headed across the pedestrian bridge to the paddock area for the Pirelli World Challenge and Indy Lights teams. Both had track time coming up, and as I got over there, the Lights teams were already heading to pit lane for morning practice. All of the Pirelli teams were hard at work, however, as they had GT, GTA, and GT Cup qualifying after Lights was done with practice.

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After a short walk through the pits during Pirelli qualifying, I headed out to meet Bayley and her friend for a late breakfast. They were headed to the airport after that, so I ended up getting a little more track time by myself before Bayley made it over a little after noon. We spent the day enjoying the pits, walking the various paddock areas, and even taking in something we’d never seen live before, the practice session for the Stadium Super Truck series. Wow. Those things are so cool to watch in person. We hung out near our grandstands for them, as they had a ramp set up just outside of turn 10, in full view of our seats. They raced both Saturday and Sunday, and we made sure to catch both races, those things are cool, just hit play on the video below to check em out:

Now that looks like fun! #stadiumsupertrucks #firestonegp #gpstpete

A post shared by Dean Cron (@dwcron) on

 

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The weekend was pretty much the same activity on our part both Saturday and Sunday, meaning we spent a lot of time walking the paddock, pits and enjoying some activity from our seats, but the highlights pretty much revolved around those pit passes. They weren’t cheap (especially since they required purchasing grandstand seats), but they were worth every penny in our opinion. They give you access to the pits pretty much any time other than the actual IndyCar race on Sunday. We watched practice and portions of races for the various support series from pit lane, as well as all IndyCar practices and qualifying. It’s so much fun to be standing right there watching the teams work. The walkway between the team equipment areas and front-straight grandstands is pretty narrow, too, so you really have to be cognizant of what’s going on around you, too. Teams have a job to do, and need to be able to get up and down that lane on their carts to shuttle parts and equipment between the pits and transporters.

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One cool thing were the pit lane monitors they put up every few pit stalls. During practice and qualifying, it allowed us an easy way to keep current on how things were going on track. We were also constantly running in to drivers and owners walking around down there. The highlight of our time in the pits had to be during the IndyCar pre-race, however. For those with pit access, you can go out on to pit road for the grid walk, checking out all the last minute activity going on, this time from the other side of pit wall. It was pretty cool, and we even ended up on camera during pre-race. We’re standing on the left hand side over Allen Bestwick’s shoulder. Next to that screenshot is a pic I took of them a second before:

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Here are a few grid -walk pictures, as well:

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After all of the drivers have arrived following introductions, they start to move out anyone who doesn’t have a team related hard card or a “race mode” tag on their pit pass. Even though we had neither, we did manage to hang out on pit lane for the start of the race and the first few laps before they finally noticed and sent us on our way. Here are a few shots I got prior to getting kicked out of the pits, including one of an early stop by Hinchcliffe after he suffered a cut tire:

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We did head to our grandstand after that, watching the rest of the race from our seats. We had a great view from GS23, but next time we have to figure out how to get hot-passes, as I think we’d have both preferred the excitement of watching all the activity from pit lane!

This is the 3rd different street course we’ve been to together for an IndyCar race (having done Long Beach and Baltimore as well) and it certainly didn’t disappoint. The city and race organizers definitely know how to put on a good show, and should we get the chance next year, we’ll definitely be back. I’d hoped to make the inaugural Boston Grand Prix in September, but I’m pretty sure I’ve blown my racing budget for the year. It was all money well spent though, a truly amazing weekend hanging out with Bayley watching something we both love 🙂

Here are a few shots of Bayley with some of our favorite drivers. For more, including a few video clips, check out my personal Instagram feed and all of the pictures I’ve posted on our SmugMug site, they’re both full of stuff from the weekend.

Oh, and congrats to JPM, heck of a drive to win that race!

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