For IndyCar drivers, St. Petersburg’s bumpy streets are par for the course

Race organizers do surprisingly little to buff out the imperfections on the asphalt before converting the streets into a race course. Drivers say that's part of the fun.
Published March 7

ST. PETERSBURG — City streets have all kinds of imperfections: potholes, gouges, scrapes, crests, bumps.

But race tracks?

You might think the organizers of this weekend's Grand Prix, which will take the open-wheeled roadsters of IndyCar through St. Petersburg's city streets, would be inclined to pave over the whole course with the same smooth asphalt as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. They don't, though.

"We present the city streets and it's up to the teams and drivers to figure out how to race them," said race organizer Kevin Savoree. "They've got to work on a setup that compensates for the really, really smooth parts and the really, really bumpy parts."

The 14-turn, 1.8 mile course begins heading southwest on runway 7-25 at Albert Whitted Airport, then swings north along a four-block stretch of First Street S, veers through the Al Lang Stadium parking lot and spends one block on Beach Drive, turns right for one block on Central Avenue, then heads back toward the airport down a long stretch of Bayshore Drive SE past the Dali Museum and the Mahaffey Theater and finally cuts through Albert Whitted Park. Pit lane is a taxiway that runs adjacent to the runway.

The other runway, 18-36, remains open to air traffic.

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But aside from putting up the barriers and fencing to demarcate the course, not much work goes into preparing the actual asphalt for the race. That means the IndyCars, with about 1.25 inches of clearance at the nose, have to negotiate all the same road imperfections at speeds up to 170 mph that passenger cars with a foot of clearance normally tackle at 25 mph.

Call it the track's unique "personality," said IndyCar driver Sébastien Bourdais. The angles of the corners, the widths of the streets, the bumpiness, even the asphalt type and age.

"Obviously, it's extremely unforgiving," said Bourdais, who lives in St. Petersburg and is going for his third straight Grand Prix victory. "You make a mistake, you're going to hit something. That's the whole challenge of street course racing, and a lot of us really enjoy the challenge."

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It's not uncommon, he said, to hit patches of new asphalt as the city does maintenance on the roads year to year, especially in Toronto, where the strong winters brutalize that street course.

To protect against the rough ride, race teams add skids to the bottoms of the cars. They have three choices of material: wood, aluminum and steel, he said. The skids protect the undercarriage, but they also change the weight and balance of the car, and they represent one of the only adjustments to the weight distribution the race teams can make, according to Bourdais.

Put steel up at the front of the car, Bourdais said, "you can drag that thing on the ground as much as you want." But it's also the heaviest. Wood is lighter, but gets chewed up faster. The decision is just as integral to race strategy as timing tire changes and fuel stops.

"It's just a lot of fun," Bourdais said, "and you feel really gratified when you come out on top."

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That's not to say the streets are race-ready all year round. Workers have to weld the manhole covers shut. Otherwise, between the grip of the tires and the suction underneath the car, a cover could shoot up. They break the welds after the race to give back access to city workers.

Even though the race course is comprised of city streets, once the 12-foot-long, 9,000-pound wall segments go up, it's easy to feel lost on the track. And without them, it can be hard to visualize the race course, even for the drivers.

"You can barely make out the racetrack when it's not blocked off like that," said Bourdais, about walking around downtown once the course is taken apart.

Landmarks bring him back to the race, though.

"Every time you get around the Dali Museum and you're on the water, you do think about it," he said.

Contact Josh Solomon at jsolomon@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4613. Follow @ByJoshSolomon.

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