ST. PETERSBURG — The future of this year's annual Grand Prix in St. Petersburg is in the air as cities, states and the nation struggle to contain the spread of COVID-19.
In a statement released March 11, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman announced that general attendance for the event has been canceled, meaning that spectators for the race will not be allowed. City officials had yet to determine whether or not the race will even take place, but said a decision was forthcoming.
"Yesterday I said the situation regarding the coronavirus was fluid," Kriseman said. "I said that for a reason. The World Health Organization has since called this a global pandemic. My most important job is public safety and health.
"It is for that reason that we are canceling general attendance at the Grand Prix," Kriseman continued. "We are working with the promoters and IndyCar and will have more announcements later as to whether the race itself will run. I don't make this decision lightly."
Should the event move forward, the marquee race, the NTT IndyCar Series kickoff, will take place Sunday, March 15, on the course that overlooks the waterfront of Tampa Bay and the picturesque St. Petersburg harbor and marina. It will be televised on NBCSN beginning at 3:30 p.m.
Cars from all seven series running this weekend’s race schedule will be on display.
Among the athletes scheduled to attend are Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden, who won last year’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on his way to capturing his second NTT IndyCar Series championship in three years. Newgarden’s teammate, Simon Pagenaud, the winner of the 2019 Indianapolis 500, also is scheduled to attend.
At a press conference last month kicking off track construction, Ryan Hunter-Reay, who considers St. Pete his home race and where he began his Indy car career in 2003, said the local race represents more to him than it does for most drivers.
“It’s the season opener and it’s a home race, so this is where all my friends and family come to, and it’s the first time in the season you are back working with your team, seeing all the spectators and fans that we love to have out,” he said.
Hunter-Reay, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, will drive the No. 28 DHL Honda for Andretti Autosport, and he will be seeking his first win in the event after finishing second three times (2009, ’10 and ’14) and third twice (2011 and ’16).
With seven top-five finishes in 13 starts, plus two seventh-place finishes, Hunter-Reay has been the event’s best driver without a victory.
“Still looking for that first one,” he said.
The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will remain as a key event on the NTT IndyCar Series schedule through at least 2024. The St. Petersburg City Council unanimously approved a four-year extension to the existing agreement with Green Savoree St. Petersburg, LLC last summer.
“The Firestone Grand Prix has a home in the Sunshine City. I am so pleased to have this cornerstone event of the NTT IndyCar Series dedicated to St. Petersburg for the next five years,” said Kriseman.
The spring break racing tradition has been the season-opening event on IndyCar’s annual calendar for the past nine years of its 15-year history. The race brings worldwide exposure and spectators from across the globe to the Tampa Bay area.
Kriseman acknowledged canceling the race would be a blow to the city.
"I strongly believe life must carry on, as best we are able," Kriseman said. "But the reality now is that's just not possible. I am disappointed. I love this race. But I love this city and our residents more."
The seven series hitting the track for practices, races and qualifying beginning Friday morning include the Porsche GT3 Cup, Indy Lights, SRO GT4, SRO TCR/TCA, USF200, Indy Pro 2000, and the NTT IndyCar Series.
For a complete schedule, information and news updates, visit gpstpete.com. Follow the event on social media with #FirestoneGP.