Fast cars bring out the crowds for racing fans throughout Tampa Bay.
We stepped out of our parked car four blocks from the racetrack and a sound like an oncoming invasion of killer bees overwhelmed us. Our hearts beat faster as we approached the track until blurs of IndyCars flashed by, their revved engines so loud we had to cram a finger in each ear to muffle the din. What a rush of excitement.
The annual Firestone Grand Prix dominates downtown St. Pete and draws thousands of locals from Pinellas and outlying counties. Sandwiched between St. Petersburg Harbor and Marina and a portion of 1st Street SE, the Mahaffey Theater serves as headquarters.
Practice and qualification days took place last Friday and Saturday for various races such as Super Trucks and IndyCars with the finals culminating on Sunday. Racers negotiated a 1.8-mile, 14-turn circuit with many choice viewing points and bleachers overlooking some of the sharp turns and straightaways.
A few challenges involved parking, with a few brazen gougers charging upwards of $40 in some of the private lots closest to the track. Grabbing a bite to eat at the various food stands proved to be a wallet-emptying affair as well. I ordered a hotdog, Coke, French fries and a bottle of water for my photographer and I, and received change of two bucks from a twenty.
Other than that, the eye candy didn’t cost anything. Besides several IndyCars, a thrilling array of souped-up roadsters included a Corvette and Camaro with hoods raised to show off gleaming engines. Wannabes could take the wheel in a simulated racecar with an interactive screen. A million-dollar RV allowed the unwashed masses to walk through and gawk at the vulgar display of expensive amenities. Drivers in sponsored paddocks signed autographs while the phone cameras clicked away.
The main grandstand bleachers ran about 300 yards parallel to the pit stop area situated inside the front straightaway. On the top tier of the bleachers, sponsored corporate suites were set up with fancy foods and expensive wines for invited bigwigs. However, we found the best vantage point to be a deck behind the Mahaffey Theater where racecars blitzed by within 15 feet, albeit separated by two screened fences.
I enjoyed watching the onlookers as much as the racing itself. With cars approaching from the left, all heads cocked hard in that direction. As a car sped by, the chorus of heads spun simultaneously to the right, then reset en masse again to the left to repeat the cycle – an amusing choreography indeed.
On one occasion between races a driver engaged fans in a question-and-answer session. I asked, “Why do racecars have bald tires?” He answered, “Because hair wouldn’t stay on them for very long.” Laughter.
Unperturbed, I next inquired, “Why do the drivers have so many sponsor labels on their jumpsuits?” His sarcastic reply, “Open your mouth and spell along with me – M-O-N-E-Y.”
Still unruffled, I asked, “I guess you get asked a lot of stupid questions, huh?” He smiled triumphantly and said, “Only in the past few minutes.” Having been unceremoniously roped, thrown and branded, I blended back into the crowd.
While most visitors to the Firestone Grand Prix dressed casually, some people were here to be seen. One fellow sported a fedora hat, suspenders, a white shirt, checkered pants and spats. A tattooed young man had so many rings and studs on his face he looked like a jewelry box. And who could forget the woman all dolled up in a wraparound dress, spiked heels and carrying a Prada handbag with the coiffed head of a white poodle poking out.
Distractions aside, when the racecars returned to the track and that mighty moan of swarming bees again arose, everyone rushed to be a part of that special competition of daring young men in their racing machines.