St. Pete Grand Prix draws record crowds

Via St. Pete Catalyst

A view of the Grand Prix’s festival area between the Mahaffey Theater and the Dali Museum. Photos by Mark Parker.

The 2024 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg likely set a new attendance record for a third consecutive year over the weekend, with multiple drivers expressing amazement over the crowd size.

IndyCar officials announced Saturday that three-day attendance numbers were up 10% – and 16% Friday – over a record-breaking 2023 event. Vendors also saw a 30% spike in IndyCar merchandise sales.

Green-Savoree Racing, the event’s organizers, do not release attendance numbers. However, several media outlets estimated over 200,000 people descended upon the Sunshine City for the 2022 Grand Prix.

“I’ve seen more people here than I’ve ever seen at an IndyCar race,” said Josef Newgarden after a dominant win. “The crowd was amazing … everything I experienced this weekend was pretty incredible.”

IndyCar veteran Alexander Rossi also gave a “huge shoutout to the fans” on social media. “That’s the busiest I’ve ever seen (a race) at St. Pete,” he wrote.

Newgarden led 92 of 100 laps on his way to a 30th career victory. He finished a comfortable 7.912 seconds ahead of runner-up Pato O’Ward in a race that lacked last year’s chaos – when five wrecks knocked out nine drivers.

“Just look at the amount of people that up today (Sunday), yesterday, Friday,” O’Ward said. “People want to be here. People want to see Indy cars go racing. I really don’t know what more we can ask for from the fans.”

St. Pete native and Gulfport resident Nikita Johnson, 15, captured another checkered flag on his home turf. He finished first in Sunday morning’s USF Pro 2000 race, equivalent to IndyCar’s minor leagues.

The IMSA SportsCar Championship Series made its Grand Prix debut. Photo by Mark Parker.

Johnson became the youngest winner in Grand Prix history in 2023 with a victory in the USF2000, a level below his current series. Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, a family friend, joined Johnson in the Victory Circle.

Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy also attended the event. Singer Bret Michaels waved the green flag to start Sunday’s race, and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Jon Bon Jovi took a trip around the street course.

Bon Jovi told NBC that “the vibe here is incredible.” Newgarden later echoed that sentiment, saying St. Petersburg’s crowds “gave the weekend a major race day vibe.”

Newgarden is no stranger to first-place finishes in the Sunshine City. He also won the 2019 and 2020 events and is now tied with Helio Castroneves for the most victories in Grand Prix history.

Josef Newgarden (center, blue) exits the Victory Circle after a dominating win. Photo by Mark Parker.

Newgarden, undergoing a career resurgence, started the Grand Prix in first place after securing pole position in Saturday’s qualifying races. The Nashville native and Team Penske driver also posted the fastest lap (60.6795) in the 14-turn, 1.8-mile circuit’s history.

“I had a lot of fun today,” Newgarden said. “We didn’t have the speed we needed on road and street courses last year, at least on a consistency basis, and today we brought that speed.”

Newgarden pulled away from the pack throughout the first quarter of the 100-lap race. However, his lead evaporated on Lap 27, as a minor wreck triggered the first of three caution periods.

Newgarden would quickly reclaim the lead and faced little competition throughout the day. Former Belleair resident Colton Herta, who finished fifth, led for one lap before pitting.

Newgarden took the lead for good in Lap 67. “I was really excited, and then it kind of calmed down those last 10 laps,” he said.

Josef Newgarden clocked the fastest lap in Grand Prix history in his No. 2 PPG Penske Chevrolet. Photo by Mark Parker.

His team claimed three of the top four finishing spots. Scott McLaughlin, who won the 2022 Grand Prix, finished third, just ahead of Penske teammate Will Power.

Marcus Ericsson, the 2023 Grand Prix winner, was knocked out of the race early due to car issues. O’Ward called his second-place finish in the season-opener a “very solid foundation to what is going to be a very tight, very competitive rest of the year.”

“I think the Penskes were just too strong for us today,” he added.

IndyCar now heads to Palm Springs, California, for the $1 million Challenge event. The non-points race begins at 12:30 p.m. March 24.

IndyCar officials and drivers believe the Grand Prix set a new attendance record.

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