I am, without a doubt, a sports car racing girl at heart. It is what piqued my interest, it feeds my soul, and every sports car racing weekend ends with me waxing poetic about how absolutely incredible it was, how much I love the cars, the people, and the sport in general. Sports car racing is my fuel, my first love, and my true love.
And yet…confession time: I look forward to the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg more than almost any other racing event every year. I love my Daytona 24 Hours, I love my 12 Hours of Sebring, and let’s be honest, if I could live at the Six Hours of the Glen, I would. But there is something really special about the annual Indy car race on the streets of St. Petersburg that opens the Verizon IndyCar Series season.
I’m not sure what it is about the race that makes it so special to me. I don’t necessarily consider myself any kind of IndyCar expert, though I guess I can hold my own with the best of them. I have my favorite drivers, who I will follow to any team (almost, at least. I’m learning a lot about how hard it is to have a favorite driver at a least favorite team). I will clear my schedule for any race and the month of May is almost a religious experience, but then I suppose that’s the case for any racing fan. But I only attend one IndyCar event a year, and I can’t spout off the rules or regulations. IndyCar, for me, is pure unadulterated enjoyment.
So when I go to my one and only race every year, I’m always surprised by how much I love the atmosphere. It’s completely different than any sports car race out there, an interesting mix of carnival and luxury, of attainable and exclusive. In sports car racing, where drivers seem more like family or friends, IndyCar drivers can still be the daredevils of old, throwing themselves and their cars around the track at absurd speeds. The paddock is open for a fee, but how much do you get to see? Drivers are chased by excited fans for a picture, all while they zoom in and out of crowds on their scooters.
The crowd is an incredible mix of diehard fans who wear their Lionheart shirts with pride and the people who aren’t fans yet, but won’t leave without becoming one. You can sit in the grandstands before the race and have a conversation about the 1985 Indy 500 and then turn to your right and engage a new fan, who is choosing who they want to win based on the driver who took a moment to welcome them to the event. All the while, you have funnel cakes and beer being consumed while kids run around, desperate to ride the carnival rides available to them. It’s a joyful atmosphere, one that invites anyone to join in and to fall in love.
Whereas sports car racing is geared to the adults in many ways, the Grand Prix of St. Pete is a family friendly race that has something for everyone. Nestled in the heart of St. Petersburg, FL, just along the bayfront, the cars roar to life through the streets while open areas are used as fairgrounds, complete with rides for the kids, countless food vendors, sponsor booths and merchandise tents. It invites all of the senses to be involved in the weekend by invoking a kind of nostalgia of carnivals and fairs of years past. And in the middle of that nostalgia, in the midst of laughter and beer vendors offering beer in the stands, there’s racing on track. Incredible, breathtaking racing that brings you back into the present in a rush of emotions.
It’s this kind of atmosphere that allows for a great introduction to the sport for new fans. Without the pressure of trying to follow four classes or of walking incredible distances to get to a good spot for spectating, a person can take a moment to really just try to understand what they are seeing. I was fortunate enough to sit in the Turn 10 grandstands, and over the two days I sat there, I met a woman whose son had brought her to the track for the first time. She wasn’t knowledgable about the racing; in fact, the extent of her knowledge seemed to stem from James Hinchcliffe having been on Dancing With the Stars (this actually happened quite a lot over the weekend and I’m so happy IndyCar was able to get such incredible exposure on the show). So while her son patiently tried to explain qualifying to her, she was able to see the driver she cheered for qualify in the top three. During race time, she thrilled in Hinch leading, was dejected when he wasn’t, and listened patiently while pit strategy and caution periods were explained to her. In one hundred and ten laps, she went from someone who had a vague interest in the sport to someone who was cheering with the rest of us as the race came to an end. At the St. Pete Grand Prix, there is so little pressure to be a fan or to become a fan that one almost inevitably slips into it.
I thrill in the challenge of endurance racing, in the long hours of multi-class racing that leaves your heart pounding and desperate for more, but even I can admit that sometimes that atmosphere I love so much isn’t the easiest for new fans to get used to. The cars are awesome, a great mix of the Batmobile and something you see James Bond driving, but there is something about the IndyCar that seems to scream: ‘This is a race car.’ When you throw that race car into a high-energy environment, almost anything seems possible.
I think sometimes we, as hardcore racing fans, crave a kind of pure fan experience where everyone is as knowledgeable and as dedicated as we are, and that no one needs the carnival rides or gimmicks of a fair to enjoy themselves at a race track. St. Pete provides a space for those fans, but also for the people who may have come in off the streets in search of something to do. It provides a whole world inside a major city, where heroes zoom past you one minute, and then may stop for a selfie the next. It gives you speed and adrenaline, but also makes sure your senses are always engaged, even if you’re not in the paddock or around these incredible cars. It, in short, creates the perfect environment where a new fan may be born.
Oh, and in case you’re worrying that I really am betraying my sports car racing roots, breathe. The Pirelli World Challenge is the perfect sampler of the joys of sports cars for these new fans, and I was pleasantly surprised by how many people stuck around after the IndyCar race to watch Patrick Long’s commanding win. Hopefully they got enough of the bug that they come to check out sports cars at Sebring too. After all, once you become a fan of racing, it’s pretty hard to just experience the track once.