ST. PETERSBURG — As IndyCar Series driver Rinus VeeKay walked around the track Friday, a fan stopped him to ask for a photo. For a moment, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg felt like 2019 again.
“There’s that atmosphere that you really missed last year,” VeeKay said.
Because the 2020 Grand Prix was shut down last March in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, the race is an appropriate barometer for sports and the Tampa Bay area. Last October’s rescheduled championship race was a sanitized, scaled-down version from previous years.
Despite having the same attendance restriction (20,000 spectators per day), Friday felt like another step toward normal —possibly because organizers moved it back a month to allow for more potential spectators to get vaccinated.
The walking paths seemed fuller, with more food and merchandise options. The buzz was louder.
“It feels like maybe we’re finally on the upslope, not the downslope,” said Sebastien Bourdais, a St. Petersburg resident and two-time Grand Prix winner. “Racing in front of fans and having no atmosphere is just not why we do this. It’s a show that’s meant to be shared and displayed in front of people. That’s what makes it cool. It’s good to see the vibe slowly coming back to a bit of normalcy.”
There’s a change in the paddock, too. About 90 percent of the team personnel have been vaccinated, according to IndyCar president Jay Frye.
Despite the apparent progress, there were literal signs that this weekend’s event remains abnormal. Messages reminded fans to remain socially distant. Temperature checks were required, and masks were, too (although that mandate wasn’t strictly enforced as spectators milled around the 1.8-mile street course).
Drivers expect to see crowds and capacities increase as the season progresses because of increasing vaccinations and, hopefully, fewer cases. One early indication: Next month’s Indianapolis 500 recently announced it will allow up to 135,000 fans (40 percent).
The five quickest drivers in Friday’s practice were separated by only one-tenth of a second. Two-time defending race winner Josef Newgarden was quickest (106.574 mph), followed by Team Penske teammate Will Power and Belleair’s Colton Herta. Rookie Jimmie Johnson was slowest in the 24-car field.
By the numbers
13 Countries represented in this IndyCar field
9 Poles in the past 11 races here for Power, who will be among the favorites to start Sunday’s race from the front
2.6 million Twitter followers for Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion
387,000 Twitter followers for the IndyCar Series’ official account
Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg
Through Sunday. Gates at intersections of First Avenue SE and First Street SE; Second Street S and Fifth Avenue S
IndyCar qualifying: 1:45 p.m. Saturday. IndyCar race: 12:42 p.m. Sunday. TV: NBC
Notable: Advance ticket sales only. More information and complete schedule here.