Grand Prix of St. Petersburg
Photos by Chris Green, Stadium Journey
Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 4.86
Streets of St. Petersburg 100 2nd Ave N Ste 340 St. Petersburg, FL 33701
Year Opened: 1985
St. Pete’s Annual Speed Celebration
What more can be said about the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg that hasn’t been said already? This really is the race that has it all. Location, action and excitement, ease of access for fans, and the best overall buzz from the locals! This is their Super Bowl! Add to this the number of races you actually get to see over the weekend, and you have one of the most jam-packed race weekend schedules around.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about this race weekend are the small touches that the event and its staff make seem like pedestrian occurrences at a traditional speedway. If you go to this race, you will want to come back.
Food & Beverage 5
Fun fact: St. Pete is a foodie’s heaven hidden away in beautiful Western-Central Florida. The race itself has some of the most amazing smells and greatest-tasting food vendors at any sports event in the country – the sound of sizzling peppers and beef on the griddle mixes with the scent of fresh seafood as one walks the concourses and sidewalks of the downtown circuit.
If you’re looking for something to eat, you will find it at the Grand Prix of St. Pete. There is a wide variety of traditional American stadium fare mixed with everything from Latin, seafood, European, and Asian food options. Freshly-made gyros that cost less than $10? Yes please! In addition, the track whizzes past some brilliant food options just steps away in downtown St. Petersburg.
Another often overlooked thing that makes this race a must-see is that the vendors are spread out evenly throughout the track. No matter if you are in the RV parking area, resting along the waterfront, wandering the main grandstand behind pit road, or are deep in downtown’s Pioneer Park, there is food available all over the place. Add to that the wandering beverage sellers on golf carts that have everything from water to cold beer, and you are guaranteed to not have to look far to satisfy your palette.
The fans in St. Pete know their racing. When drivers were introduced during the most recent IndyCar race, they cheered and booed with the best of them. The races are action-packed and easy to follow, thanks to the well thought-out layout of the track. It incorporates easy to access locations from both the inside and outside of the course, giving fans the best vantage point, no matter where you want to see the race from. In addition, the quality of the racing on track is right there with the best of them, as the big names of the IndyCar Series take the track, along with drivers in lower divisions craving the opportunity to show the world what they can do.
St. Petersburg is a growing city on the rise – it is a mix of vacationers, college students (USF has a campus literally steps away from the track), and professionals mixing with both city and suburban folks.
In addition, the neighborhood around the track is evolving into a high quality of life location that features some of the best hole-in-the-wall eateries you can imagine, with traditional shopping and dining (CVS, Publix, and others are there to help meet your shopping needs).
Hotels and resorts vary from motels a few blocks away to the beautiful Hilton in the heart of downtown, which puts you steps away from the main gate; there is also a SpringHill Suites and a Hampton Inn right next to the raceway. Fair warning though to all fans looking to book a room for the coming race: book them ASAP! Rooms go very fast, and the prices rise the closer you get to the event for all locations near the course. From northern Tampa to Bradenton to the south, it is hard to find a room unless you have set it up over six months in advance.
Not to be forgotten, the people here are gracious, kind, and welcoming, making even the most travel-weary fan at the races feel like he or she is right at home. Also, with the course situated right on the beautiful waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the beach is right next door to the track, just a short drive away. Often rated among the greatest beaches in the country, relaxation under the sun is easier here than ever.
Rude fans won’t be found here – this is easily one of the most family-friendly racing crowds anyone can find. Not only that, but they’re also series-intelligent; they know all the drivers, all the teams, and why each one is better or worse than the next. They also cheer at the top of their lungs, they applaud close racing and impressive moves, and they oooh and aaah throughout the weekend, and nobody cuts in line when waiting to cross the pedestrian bridges or when getting their favorite driver’s autograph. As far as sports fans go, the crowds at St. Pete are among the best there is.
Access is the ONLY complaint one may have about the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, but even with the limited parking, it isn’t hard to find a place to park on race day. This is helped by the large contingent of fans who arrive at the track via bike, as evidenced by the massive bicycle parking racks at the entrances, which are completely full by the time the main event begins on Sunday.
Getting to the track is as easy as possible, with I-175 and I-375 branching off I-275, and literally ending on the street in downtown St. Pete that leads to the main entrance. How much easier is it to find than that? And if you don’t have a parking pass, there are plenty of local parking lots, garages, and metered spots that you can access; prices range from $10 to $40 depending on how close you want to be, but even the spaces right by the entrances average $20, which is shockingly low for a big event like this. Traffic may be the only deterrent here, as constant construction zones are popping up around the downtown area as new buildings rise into the sky.
Another incredibly cool way to get to the course is the free water taxi from the St. Petersburg Sailing Club. This short ride on a pontoon boat takes you from Demen’s Landing to the floating docks outside of the floating trackside bar. Here, you can walk past the large yachts to another track entrance. From there, a walk over the bridge drops you off right in the fan zone by the main pits.
Return on Investment 5
Let’s analyze what you get for the price of admission (which can range from $50 to upwards of $100, depending on your ticket choice): You get some of the best racing in the business between six racing series (with multiple classes in the Pirelli World Challenge split into four total races over the weekend) that often include more than one race over the event’s schedule. You also get to see the season opener for the IndyCar Series, the nation’s premiere open-wheel racing series. In addition, you get to watch this all in one of the most underrated beautiful cities in the country? How can you say no?
Remember the small touches? This is what really impressed me at this race – when walking into the track, you are greeted by smiling track staff and volunteers who offer you colorful beads, a pack of sunscreen, a track and race guide, a hand-held fan, and earplugs…FREE! None of this is free at any other sports event you will go to. Heck, a pair of ear plugs will cost you upwards of $3 at a NASCAR race.
In addition, your ticket offers you free admission to the garage and paddock area for the IndyLights, Star Mazda, F-2000, and Pirelli World Challenge, offering you up-close access to the drivers, cars, and teams. Also, the weekend features several autograph sessions for all the series, giving fans the chance to see their idols up close. Another awesome bonus is the myriad displays at the track – from the IndyCar Series fan zone to the various vendor activations, there is no shortage of fun things to do at the track.
Perhaps one of the neater aspects of the race is the party patio on the water in the middle of the marina. A short walk over a pedestrian bridge and down onto a floating platform, this bar on the water floats along and is free to all fans in attendance.
One of the best places to party, however, is the RV lot, located along the front straight on the airport. Yes, you read that right…airport. Part of the course and garage area takes over a portion of an airport in St. Pete. Even cooler still, one of the runways remains open during the weekend, with everything from helicopters (you can buy rides in them during the race weekend), small private prop planes, and Coast Guard Blackhawks taking off and landing during the races.
The Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is still one of the best sporting events for fans in all of America, let alone in just the racing circles. It is hard to beat the city, time of year, the product in front of you, and the fan access this event gives. In addition, it is also hard to find a race track with a better fan experience than the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
This yearly event signals the start of the season for four racing series and the continuation of two others, all while fans watch under the warm sun and the sea breezes that St. Pete offers. Whether you’re watching from the balcony of a high-rise, the grandstands along the track, the walkway next to the Dali Museum, or the party platform on the water, you will be hard-pressed to find a better place to watch quality racing.