Before the first Indycar race in St. Petersburg, a CART race in 2003 won by Paul Tracy, sports cars raced through the streets in the mid 1980s and had a brief revival in the 90s. The early tracks did not use the Albert Whitted Airport runway and ran further uptown. The course we know today still has parts of the former tracks in it.
In 1985, St. Petersburg sought a way to gain more exposure and attract tourism. A street race was proposed. The nine turn course ran along the waterfront, returning to the finish line via Bay Shore Drive. Turn 6 looks interesting, if not downright scary. SCCA Trans Am and Can Am cars participated.
Willy T. Ribbs won the inaugural Trans Am race, and Dr. Lou Sell won the Can Am race
For 1986 the course was revised. Businesses along the pier were not happy that they were cut off during the time of the race. This configuration continued through 1990, when the race stopped after losing its sponsor. The 180 degree turn is gone. The track went to the Vinoy hotel and then to Bay Shore Drive. This track has 10 turns and a more straightforward route.
Pete Halsmer and Scott Pruett were two winners with an Indycar connection in this era. In 1987 Johnny O’Connell won in Formula Atlantics. I can’t imagine what a young O’Connell looked like. Tragedy struck in 1987 when Jim Fitzgerald suffered fatal injuries after hitting the concrete barriers in turn 1. Firtzgerald had been a mentor to Paul Newman as Newman began his racing career.
In 1996 and 1997, a race sponsored by Kash n Karry ran on a course around Tropicana Field. The sponsor pulled out before the 1998 race and racing was done in St. Pete until CART returned in 2003.
The new track is basically the same layout we are familiar with today, 14 turns with the wide runway as the front stretch. The curbing in turns 2 and 10 stays down all year long.
There was no race in 2004 as the promoters were uncertain of the viability of CART. In 2005 the IRL began racing and has continued annually since.
In 2017 a subtle change was made with a little kink between turns 2 and 3.
The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will run on October 25 this year. If it runs as scheduled March 7 in 2021, it will serve as the 2020 season finale and the 2021 season opener. The races would be held less than five months apart.