A Weekend at the 2018 Grand Prix of St Petersburg

I’m a little late getting this out considering the race happened three weeks ago, but hey, better late than never! This is the 3rd year in a row that Bayley and I have attended the Grand Prix of St Pete, and while I did write about it in 2016, I never got around to it last year for some reason, so I’ll make up for that by being extra wordy this time. One thing to note here, I’m not going to cover the race itself, there are plenty of motorsports writers who do it for a living that cover it far better than I could. If you’re looking for well-written recaps, hit up TrackSide Online or the IndyCar section of Racer’s site. I’ll be talking to our experience as fans at the track, and maybe throwing in some tips along the way!

In past years, we’ve purchased grandstand seats in turn 10, along with paddock and pit passes. This year we decided to do something different and go with a 2-race credential package through IndyCar Nation, IndyCar’s fan community. Those give you general admission access to the track, along with paddock and pit access, so we were only losing grandstand seats, which really wasn’t a big deal to us, as we prefer to check out the action from various locations around the track. As the site indicates, it also gets you a hot lap, a big added bonus in my eyes. Being an actual IndyCar-issued hard card doesn’t hurt either!

When I’m attending races, I like to spend as much time at the track as possible, so I’m usually there around the time the gates opened. On Friday I was entering alone, as Bayley had a couple of classes at Eckerd and wouldn’t be arriving at the track until around 1pm. No problem, I hopped the free shuttle from the Hollander and was on my way, arriving at the track right about 8am. Friday mornings tend to be the least busy time of the weekend, so I usually end up doing a ton of walking, trying to cover as much of the track as possible while things are quiet. When I arrived this time, the PWC area was first up. I wanted to go check out Flying Lizard’s space, as they were back with a couple of Audi R8 LMS GT4s this year. Sure, their Porsche liveries are classic, but as an Audi owner, I do love the R8 🙂

The walk over there isn’t a short one, and thanks to the security area between the PWC and IndyCar paddocks, isn’t always an easy one either. We did the walk a couple of times on Saturday last year and were less than impressed with the speed of the lone security checkpoint between paddocks used for the return trip, as the line to go through the metal detector could get pretty long. They did move the security location closer to the pedestrian bridge between T2 and T3 this year, but it’s still basically a funnel into a single metal detector. As much as I’d have liked to visit the PWC side more, that security gate made me decide to stick to only two visits, and only on Friday.

After a long walk up and down their paddock area checking out a number of teams, I headed back over to the IndyCar side to catch PWC  practice and USF2000 qualifying from the pits. The best place to be for any on-track action in my opinion is the pits, as there’s nothing like hanging out back there watching the teams go to work. Honestly, pit passes may be pricey, but they’re worth every penny. The only Indycar session we didn’t take in from pit lane was the actual race on Sunday, but only because we didn’t have race mode tags allowing us to be there. One of these years we’ll figure out how to get our hands on those!

While I was down there taking in the action, I got a text from Riley, who runs the IndyCar Nation program, asking if Bayley and I wanted to sit front row for the Friday Q&A session with Helio Castroneves. Heck yea I did! This is just a small example of why IndyCar Nation is the best fan community in sports, and easily worth the price of admission. Helio’s session was being held at 12:30 in the Mahaffey Center, shortly after IndyCar practice wrapped up, so I texted Bayley to see if she’d be at the track by then. She seriously considered skipping class, but with a quiz scheduled decided to stay, so I went alone. The event was a blast, Helio’s very well spoken and has a ton of interesting stories to tell. Here’s a clip of him talking about last year’s Indy 500:

At the end, he even did a little video selfie for the promoters, which I’m visible in! Bottom of the video in the white shirt with the huge grin on my face:

About the time Helio’s session ended, Bayley arrived at the track, so I met her outside the paddock near the bridge at the gate 5 entrance. Shortly after she arrived, we grabbed some lunch from one of the stands in the main shopping district (for lack of a better term) between the Dali museum and the front stretch grandstands. The food’s mostly the type of thing you’d find at a fair/carnival, so expensive and bad for you, but super tasty. I hadn’t eaten all morning, and the foot long corn dog I inhaled really hit the spot, while destroying the diet I’ve been working on for the past two months.

After lunch, we decided to take a stroll over to the PWC/support series side again so she could check it out before the security area got overloaded. Thankfully things moved pretty well and she got to check out the whole area before we headed back over to catch more pit road action as Indy Lights qualifying was starting, followed by more PWC action and IndyCar practice session #2. Is there anything better than the sound of those cars?

After a full day at the track, mostly spent on pit lane, we headed out to get some rest before enjoying a delicious dinner at Hawkers with Bayley and one of her roommates. Day 1 was a success, and we still had two more days to go!

Up next on page 2, Saturday at the track!

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:

 

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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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Renting Camera Gear

I know in my last post that I said I was done until after my trip this weekend, but after a package came today, I figured I had one more in me 🙂

I love to take pictures when on vacation, as most people do. I started shooting with DSLRs about 9 years ago when my daughter started in competitive cheer, but would say that even today, I’m an amateur photographer at best. While I used to lug my gear around any time we went on trips, I only really enjoy shooting with it under the right circumstances these days. Over the past few years, my interest in using the DSLR gear on vacations has waned, and while I do still take it with me, it serves as a backup camera to my point and shoot, which also happens to be my phone, currently a Nokia Lumia 1020 with the camera grip. While each has advantages and disadvantages, being able to carry such little weight when using a decent point and shoot is enough for me to leave the DSLR in the bag. Most of the time.

The main exception to my rule would be auto races, the one place I really enjoy shooting. Over the past few years, I’ve rented gear to haul to the following:

  • 2008 Grand Prix of Long Beach: Rented a Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S VR to mount on my D80
  • 2010 Grand Prix of Long Beach: Rented a Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 G ED-IF AF-S VR to mount on my D80
  • 2012 Rolex 24 at Daytona: Rented a Nikon D7000 + Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II
  • 2015 Rolex 24 at Daytona: Rented a Nikon D750 + Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II
  • Oh, and I also rented a Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED AF-S VR to use with my D80 on a work trip to Yosemite in 2010.

The D750 and 70-200 arrived today, just in time for our departure tomorrow. I’ve used a couple of different services for this over the years, LensRentals.com and RentGlass.com, and have had nothing but good experiences with both of them. The majority of those listed above, however, have been with LensRentals. My main reason behind this is because they allow me to schedule well in advance what I want and when I need it, vs just waiting until a few days before the trip and hoping what I want is in stock. For this trip, I reserved the gear on the 7th for arrival today. I’ll keep it 4 days, and send it back in the packaging it arrived in on Monday on my way home, only needing to have some packing tape on hand since the return shipping label is included.

Both of the services do an outstanding job packaging their gear, which I would completely expect considering how much this equipment would cost to replace. Today’s box was no different:

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The main reason I’m willing to rent and lug heavy gear around with me is that it’s next to impossible to get a decent shot of a race car at speed using a P&S. Shooting a moving vehicle is a mix of stable panning, fast glass, perfect shot settings, and good location. The professionals generate some awesome images. Me, I’m just happy to get pictures to use as desktop backgrounds, to be honest. The other challenge will be the number of pictures I take. I leave it in burst mode the whole weekend, and usually max out the camera buffer when I’m shooting a passing car from the fence line, and am guessing I’ll easily come home with somewhere between 2500-3000 pictures to sort through this trip. Most of that will likely be throw away, too, but the ones that turn out good will occupy my computer screens for quite a while.

Back to the rental services. Honestly, I find this to be a great way not only to try new gear, but to avoid paying the price of buying something you may only use a couple of times. I’ve always received solid, perfectly working gear, and the few times I did have to contact either company’s support for something, they were always very friendly and helpful. For anyone who’s never used a camera rental service but isn’t interested in renting DSLR gear, most of them aren’t limited to that, some have point and shoot cameras and GoPro gear, too.

One last recommendation for anyone renting high-end gear: Get the insurance for anything you’re not willing to pay replacement cost on. On our 2010 trip to Long Beach, I dropped my camera while it had the 18-200 rental lens on it. As soon as it left my hands, my heart sank. I didn’t even want to pick it up. When I did, I could tell that the lens was a bit jacked up, as the focus ring was loose, and the lens itself wasn’t 100% secure on the mount. We were at the car getting ready to head to the hotel on day 2 (of 3) when it happened, so I wrapped it up and waited to asses it further until we got to the hotel. When we got back to the room, I went ahead and emailed RentGlass to let them know what happened and ask for next steps. Long story short, after we got home, I sent the lens back as scheduled and waited to find out how much the repair was going to cost. Fortunately, none of the glass was damaged, and Nikon’s price to repair was only $125. That was the one time I skipped insurance, and I was sure I was going to have to pay for a new lens, so I was pretty happy with that outcome. It was a lesson for sure, and is still the only time I’ve ever dropped a camera.

Well, I’m off to finish packing since we’re off to Daytona in the morning! For now, here are a handful of my favorite shots taken with rental gear over the years:

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