Grand Prix of Saint Petersburg Fan Guide

By Lisa Kenny (@lmkenny), co-editor/bartender of the DrunkChicane.com.

I was excited when OpenPaddock asked me to help write their Fan Guide for the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. I may be a little bias, having lived in the immediate area for ten years and being in attendance for every IndyCar race held in the city, but it is bar none one of the best events on the schedule (and I have been to numerous street courses – domestic and international).

My love of IndyCar started on the Streets of St. Pete. Actually, it was Champ Car to be exact. Having never followed racing (other than laughing at how NASCAR fans could watch left turns for hours on end), I remember attending USF St. Pete and getting a parking pass as our campus backs into the track. Since my class was cancelled on Friday and I had the day off work I decided to “check things out.” I was hooked from the minute I heard those engines fire. I had driven down that street many times, everyday… and to see those machines hitting 120+ on 1st Street South, I knew I had to follow along. Now before you ask, I have done the drive down Bay Shore many times and geek out seeing the remnants of red lines and curbs – fastest I did was 65, and that was hauling ass down that stretch of road. Eventually I switched over to IndyCar a couple years before the series shifted and was at the inaugural Indy4Car race Rick Baker (former Mayor) envisioned…. the rest, as they say, was history!

Since that kick-off, the city has done a fantastic job over the years at making this a superb spectator event – from crowd and traffic control, building up the Thursday night parade and having a plethora of local hot spots to partake in some after-track activities, you will not be disappointed with your visit!

Getting Around

The Downtown St. Pete location is ideal for walking; however, if you are flying in to the Tampa Bay area I would highly recommend renting a car, especially if you plan to stay for an extended period of time (and why wouldn’t you?). Depending on track activities, there are a lot of great spots to visit within a 30 minute or less radius.

From Tampa International Airport (TPA) to Downtown St. Petersburg:
*Depending on origination, look for flights into St. Petersburg – Clearwater (PIE) Airport as you can sometimes get better deals (especially from Canada).

Take I-275 southbound across the Howard Frankland Bridge to St. Petersburg.
Take Exit #22 (I-175 E) – Also I-475 E (drops you in the North end)
I-175 E ends in downtown St. Petersburg (proceed from there)
Cab Fare: Roughly $35-45 (about 20 miles)

Event Parking
Parking is available in various locations around the track and can range from $5-20+. As there are many one-ways in St. Pete and it can get confusing with the street closures if you are not familiar with the area, the best option I have found is to park at Tropicana Field (9th Street S), which costs $5 per day and the city provides complimentary air-conditioned shuttles that take you to and from the track (they run all day and there is rarely a long wait).

Track Logistics

Where should I sit?
There are three main grandstand seating areas around the track: Front Straight (runs the full length of pit lane along the airport runway), Turn 1 and Turn 10.

Personally, I am a huge fan of the grandstands located at Turn 10 and would never sit anywhere else. It is a good spot for seeing the cars come in fast to a tight turn after the long backstretch on Bay Shore. You also have great viewing of track monitors, as well as a gorgeous water view.

If you are planning to purchase General Admission, there is plenty of standing room along the track. My favorite spot use to be Turn 4 for GA, but has now been overtaken by the Verizon Fan Village. A lot of folks line up along 1st Street S, especially in front of Progress Energy Park as well as along the backstretch on Bay Shore. Turn 9 affords some nice shade – if you can get a spot! Otherwise, walk around…there is a lot to see from the mainland!

Pedestrian Access
Access for this track is awesome as you can easily get in and out at three main locations along 1st Street South. It is nice to be able to leave for lunch (unless you are so inclined to crave and eat track food) and walk over to a restaurant and have a sit down lunch – in the air conditioning (did I mention heat already)! While the shuttles to Tropicana are at the main gate by Turn 2, just heading out for a bite to eat leave means leaving at the crossing by Turn 7 (1st Ave S) so that you are closer to Central Ave.

Which brings up a thought to remember (even by the water): St. Pete is a grid design. You are either on a street or an avenue, heading north or south, east or west. Acclimate and you will do just fine!

Paddock
The majority of the paddock for this event is located under a parking deck (for Mahaffey Theater), which provides a nice retreat from the Florida sun. And in the rare occasion (e.g., circa 2009) you hear loud speakers telling you to seek shelter…head to the paddock area.

Speaking of the paddock, the GoDaddy.com hauler is typically at the front of the shaded area (Penske is in the sun, boo)…will be nice to either have no crowd waiting for once in the middle of the walkway – or dealing with people that don’t know Danica is not there. I will remind them as Hinch walks out and people have no idea who he is (p.s. St. Pete was were we learned he had a ride for 2011 before anyone else did!).

Another cool factor is that teams have to go from the parking deck area to pit lane – which is right through the crowd. You will see every driver and car pushed out. Beware: MAKE A HOLE!!!

Permissible Items
As with most street courses, the standard items apply (no chairs, etc.). It should go without saying, absolutely bring the sunscreen and a hat!!

Lodging

My only experience with lodging was a nice two-bedroom condo on St. Pete Beach, so I can’t shed too much light on hotel accommodations. There are several hotels along Beach Drive that are close to the track and within walking distance, as well as some others within the vicinity that may be a short drive (and cheaper on the wallet). The official hotel of the event is The Vinoy, which by all means if you can swing it; it is a VERY nice resort. You can also head over there to enjoy a drink on the rocking chairs out front even if you are not staying there (a common local past time) and maybe see a driver or two. Other hotels that are a little more reasonable include the Sheraton, Hilton and Hampton Inn. If you walk in a few blocks there are some nice historic hotels, such as the Ponce De Leon and a lot of quaint B&B’s.

Entertainment

You will find plenty of race fans (and drivers) walking up and down Beach Drive– and there are plenty of places to eat and drink while taking in the atmosphere. But be sure to head up the side streets, as there are cool places a few blocks inland. Below are a few places I recommend:

Places to Eat & Drink

  • Midtown Sundries – Perfect spot next to the track. Be sure to try their bourbon grilled wings and their homemade blue cheese dressing. You can thank me later.
  • Ceviche Tapas Bar & Restaurant – Stick around for after hour jazz/piano bar underground. Watch your step coming up!
  • Mastry’s – Locals only, so blend in for a beer!
  • Moon Under Water – Brie and Pot Pies. Enough said.
  • 400 Beach Drive – You are guaranteed to be eating with IndyCar drivers. You have to either book early here or plan to wait, but the seafood is awesome.
  • Hook’s – Drive ten or less minutes inland to hit what I heard was Dan Wheldon’s favorite sushi spot. Which as a local, goes without giving some background: Hook is the name of the sushi chef. He worked across the street at Salt Rock Grill. When they screwed him out of partnership, he opened Hooks across the street and you will stand in a line around the corner for the best sushi you have eaten in your life while Salt Rock Grill begs for customers. We know good food when we eat it. I also just heard from a close friend as I write this guide that Hook passed over the last couple months. So damn, show some respect…and eat a lobster roll while you are at it!

Honestly, there are SO many more good places to hang that the list could go on and on…just check out local businesses, head up Central Avenue or Beach Drive and enjoy!

Beachin’ It
What would a trip to Florida be without hitting the beach for some sun and sand? If you plan to stay for some extra sunshine after the track festivities die down, the St. Petersburg / Clearwater area is home to some of the top-rated beaches in Florida. Below are some spots to check out:

  • Fort Desoto (Tierra Verde) – Head on 275 S and Exit Pinellas Bayway. This gem will be on your left (follow the Bayway to Tierra Verde). You have to pay a toll to get into the park (last time I was there, as a non-registered Sun Pass customer it was 50 cents) but you will have quite, pristine beach to relax on.
  • St. Pete Beach / Pass-a-Grille – My home turf. About a 15-minute drive from Downtown, you will find lots of arts and crafts, local yokels and dive bars in the midst of crazy tourists. Drunken Clam is a great spot – blend in, they don’t want to hear about Illinois.
  • Treasure Island – Following the beach (Gulf Blvd), you will find yourself in TI after a 5-minute drive. Don’t worry; there is no Jack Sparrow – but hit up John’s Pass for fun shopping, water adventures and more. While you are it, be sure to hit up Caddy’s, which is soon to be torn down for a Jimmy Buffett Margaretville. I do not approve.
  • Clearwater Beach – Frenchy’s. It is our version of In ‘n’ Out. Multiple locations; however, Clearwater is the original location and you can eat, drink and play volleyball as you sit right on the beach.

Those are a few places in St. Petersburg/Clearwater…mind you, Tampa is 30 minutes over the water and you can check out awesome spots like Whiskey Joe’s. If you need more recommendations, feel free to reach out as this only captures a few.

Area Attractions
St. Pete/Tampa is only a 60-90 minute drive to Orlando. You can take a tip from Drunk Chicane and Drink Around the World at Epcot…or play it safe at Disney. If you stay in the Tampa Bay area, I recommend the following:

  • Hard Rock Casino – As a non-gambler, this is a cool casino with lots to do. The rooms are amazing, as are the drinks and food (one of the best buffets in town).
  • Busch Gardens – One word. Kumba. Bitches!

So Enjoy!
All in all, St. Petersburg/Tampa provides a great backdrop to an IndyCar race. Given the experience the city has in pulling off the event and all that comes along with it (yes, I am looking at you spring breakers), you are sure to have an amazing time. And if not, you can find me on a boat, with a frozen daiquiri.

4 comments

  • Heikki Kovalianin

    Nice story but, It’s “used to” not “use to”.

  • Fran, do you mean free paddock day? The pits and paddock are two different things and I *thought* paddock access was the only one that was free on Friday, but could be wrong having not been to St Pete before (that’s how it worked at Long Beach and Baltimore tho). I assume you’ll still need a GA ticket to get in the gates, but yes, if you’re willing to pay for the single day GA ticket, it’s worth the price of admission, especially with free access to the paddock, where all of the teams are set up. Walk around the paddock before and after practice/qualifying, and you’ll run in to more than one driver, and they are (for the most part) very friendly and willing to stop and sign autographs. There are exceptions (bad day, running late, active driver whose last name rhymes with Scmandretti, etc) but it’s a good time. As Lisa alluded to, just be aware of what’s going on around you in the paddock, as teams will be rolling cars and equipment between the paddock and pits at various times during the day, so be ready to move out of the way if they’re headed in your direction.

    Another piece of advice, if you’re in the area on Thursday, head to the track that afternoon. None of the cars will be running, as Thursday is a track/paddock setup day, but if St Pete is like the other street races I’ve been to, the track isn’t fully closed off yet and fans can walk around for free. My daughter and I do that every time we hit a street race, and plan to do it at St Pete this year too. Never know what you might see. Just one example: we got to watch a few of the Alex Job Racing crew doing golf cart wheelies down pit lane on Thursday afternoon of the 2012 GPoB 🙂

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