Notes & Quotes: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg
SÉBASTIEN BOURDAIS joined AJ Foyt Racing to run a limited schedule of four races this season, including the first three on the NTT INDYCAR SERIES schedule. Born in Le Mans, France and now a resident of St. Petersburg for nearly 15 years, he won his first of 34 pole positions in INDYCAR competition as a rookie in his debut race which was in St. Petersburg. After that race in 2003, he didn’t return to race in St. Pete until 2011 following a two-year stint in Formula One. Since his return to INDYCAR, his best start has been sixth (2015) but he posted back-to-back wins in 2017-2018 to bring his win total to 37. We asked “Seb” a few questions…
Q: The Kart 4 Kids Pro-Am race is part of the St. Pete opening race festivities and has raised $596,000 over the last eight years to provide critical, patient care equipment for Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. How did the event come about and how did you become so involved in it?
SB: “Dan Wheldon was a pretty big benefactor to All Children’s Hospital and when he passed, the Porsche Club of Tampa Bay decided to do something in his honor and run a Pro-Am race at Anderson Park. Pat Long was involved. They raised five or six thousand dollars the first year. It was just a group of friends coming together and making a donation to the hospital. That foundation grew over the years. Pat relocated to California, and at that point, I’d already participated a couple of times so they asked me to take over from Patrick. He stayed on board but they wanted to have somebody local, so I helped out. They were running it the weekend after the Sebring 12 Hour race and because of my links with INDYCAR, we decided to bring the race to the track in St. Pete and involve the INDYCAR community more. Then it just took flight. We went from seventy thousand dollars to a hundred and thirty thousand to almost two hundred thousand dollars last year, so it’s been pretty cool to be a part of it. There’s a bunch of volunteers and a lot of good people trying to do some good things for the kids.” Note: The 9th Annual Kart 4 Kids Pro-Am Race takes place Wednesday, March 11 and is open to fans starting at 3 PM. More information is available at Kart4kids.org.
Q: A native of Le Mans, France, you chose to live in St. Petersburg. Why?
SB: “My first professional race was in 2003 with Newman-Haas and I lived in Miami at that time with Claire (wife) and we came over the bridge and we said, ‘Whoa, this place is pretty awesome.’ We stayed downtown and we were pretty impressed with the area. Claire needed to finish her studies and she got a full scholarship to study at USF (University of South Florida) in Tampa. We got a little bit away from the bay but she was studying for two years and as soon as she was done, we found a house on the water in St. Pete and settled there and never really looked back.”
Q: Do you have any favorite restaurants?
SB: “The food scene is quite interesting in St. Pete. Downtown is really booming and if you run up and down Central Ave and Beach Drive, you’re gonna see some pretty interesting little places with some really fun fusion menus. In some respects, without the Texan style, it’s a bit of an Austin kind of atmosphere. It’s very outdoors, a lot of people hanging out. What we really enjoy doing is discovering what’s new that’s popping up every other week. We rarely go twice or three times to the same restaurant because we’re still exploring all that there is. Plus we’ve got two kids so it’s not like we’re going out every night. We’re not quite done with the exploration part.”
Q: Can you recommend places to visit or things to do?
SB: “Every first Saturday of the month there are tours of the murals all around downtown and they tell you all about them. There’s a lot to do; there are tours that take you to little islands, and the fishing in the bay is pretty awesome. There’s no shortage of activities in downtown. The new pier is coming out so there’s going to be quite a few restaurants and parks for the kids. St. Pete is really growing and evolving. And there are a lot of museums, the [Salvador] Dali Museum, and the Raymond James family has built the James Museum [of Western and Wildlife Art]. I haven’t seen it yet but my wife saw it with the kids and it is apparently very impressive. They had their private collection of art and they built the museum to display it for the public so that’s pretty cool. There are a couple more museums that are being built so the cultural part of St. Pete is developing rather rapidly.”
Q: What is your favorite thing about the circuit or racing in St. Petersburg?
SB: “The greatest thing is that you get to race at home. There is nothing quite like it. I get to do it twice a year—at Le Mans and here in St. Pete. It’s always nice when you can race in an environment where you have friends and family around. We also have Kart4Kids which is an intricate part of the weekend now, so I give rides, we do the event on Wednesday night. It’s a non-stop week. The track itself has been a bit of a love-hate relationship to be honest. The first year I was on pole and really should have won that race plain, straight, simple and we got caught out on strategy. I tried to make up for it and I crashed the car doing so and that was a bit of a heartbreak. After that we never were in a position where it seemed to work out. We were fast but never quite making it happen and then in ‘17 and ’18, the race came to us so that was great. It’s a pretty challenging track and it’s one of the longest races of the year and it’s the first race of the season. Physically it’s always a very tough one. I think that stands out as a characteristic of the event plus it is a little Monaco. It’s really pretty and when you look at the aerial shots, it looks like Monaco without the elevation change. It’s our Monaco in INDYCAR I guess.”
Q: Did it take you much time to adapt to the aeroscreen?
SB: “It’s pretty transparent. The first thing that’s a little disturbing is the halo part and it’s a little disturbing because it’s quite thick and it runs down the center so your eyes can get caught on it but the screen itself, when it’s clean, they’ve done a really good job there because there is no distortion or blind spot, it’s really, really clear. With the curvature that it has, it’s pretty amazing that they came up with something that clear. The only thing is it is quite a bit hotter in the cockpit. As far as car balance and car performance, the car is 55 lbs. heavier. Weight is not your friend in racing when you’re trying to go fast so it’s definitely slowing us down a little bit but it’s a tradeoff between safety and performance. When you start to see bits and pieces of gearbox flying off and you are going through a cloud of debris, I think everybody’s going be happy to have that canopy in front of them.”
Q: How much does the area change with the street course being set up?
SB: “It is minimally invasive because part of it is the airport so the airport is getting a little disturbed but they cope with it pretty well, and then a good section of it is part of a parking lot and a waterfront where there are no businesses, offices or houses so it really affects only the ones that are on First Street, which compared to most other street courses, is not a lot. They’ve done a good job of shortening the building and the undoing of the track period. The community has embraced the event and it’s grown steadily over the years. The economic impact is very significant during that week so I think everybody is understanding more and more the benefits of that.”
Q: You grew up in Le Mans, also a city that embraces their race event. Did the race impact the city by shutting down roads?
SB: “Le Mans doesn’t use local streets but it does use a big national road, the one that goes between Le Mans and Mulsanne, and the one that goes between Mulsanne and Arnage. The good thing is that it blocks only a few people from their house access but most of the traffic can be diverted using other roads so it’s not that invasive. I lived south of Mulsanne so I was pretty close. We’d always go either to Mulsanne Corner or up to Indianapolis Arnage corner. That was before my dad was racing. I think ’93 was the first year he did it, so that year I lived the race from the inside and that was a completely different perspective. I started racing karts in ’91 so I thought that race was pretty cool and I wished one day I could do it, and then it kind of came together.” Note: Bourdais took the class win in the LMGTE Pro division at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2016 driving the Ford GT for Chip Ganassi Racing. Driving for Team Peugeot, he has claimed three overall runner-up finishes in the historic event.
Q: So your 2017 Ford GT will be auctioned off in the upcoming Mecum Collector Cars auction in Glendale, Ariz. on Saturday. Your car is listed as the main attraction. Tell us about the car.
SB: “I picked the Competition Series with the Alcantara interior and carbon everything—there are only three left in the world. I got to pick the color—it’s called “Liquid Gray” and it’s got the central carbon stripe --one big stripe down the center of the car-- plus it has the carbon rims and titanium exhaust. It’s pretty, it’s really pretty. While I was testing in Sebring last week, my wife Claire sent me the picture of the car getting loaded for the auction. It’s a sad thing but it’s too valuable so I’m not comfortable keeping that car. Honestly it’s either you sell it now or you’re going to hang onto it for 20 years. I’ve done well over the years but not well enough to keep that much of a financial commitment in a garage.
Q: Have you driven it around town?
SB: I never tracked it [ran it on a race track] but I took Claire for a couple nights out in the GT. I just tried to run it every so often to make sure everything runs well, those things don’t like to sit. I took the kids a few times and my son Alex really liked it. I didn’t want to put too many miles on it—it has around 270. It’s definitely an amazing car that’s for sure. Not one you want to give to a race car driver and let him have too much fun on the road with it because I think you’d find the first sheriff pretty quickly. Hopefully it finds a car lover.”
Q: Your thoughts on driving for A.J. Foyt?
SB: “Well he hasn’t gotten mad at me yet so I don’t think I’ve had the full experience! Obviously he’s a racer, a competitor and he wants his cars to perform. And I think as a driver, when you drive for AJ Foyt Racing, you feel the duty to perform more so than on any other team because he’s got that legacy around him and behind him and you’re flying the flag. I’ve been privileged enough to drive for Carl [Haas] and Paul [Newman] and now or A.J. Hopefully, we can do some good things and bring the team back to some successful days.”
CHARLIE KIMBALL on St. Petersburg: "I can't wait to get the 2020 season started at St. Pete with AJ Foyt Racing. A new season always inspires new opportunities, and I feel great about the opportunities this year. I'm proud to start a 12th season with Novo Nordisk, and look forward to their support all year long."
New engineers join the team: Veteran engineers Mike Colliver and Mike Pawlowski have joined the team this season. Colliver will share engineering duties with Daniele Cucchiaroni on the No. 14 car while Pawlowski will engineer Charlie Kimball’s car this season. Colliver will work with both Sebastien Bourdais and Tony Kanaan while Cucchiaroni will engineer rookie Dalton Kellett’s car.
TONY KANAAN will be in St. Petersburg: Tony Kanaan plans to attend all of the races on the NTT INDYCAR SERIES schedule this year even though the plan is for him to drive the No. 14 Chevrolet only on the ovals. He is taking in every event as an opportunity to visit with his fans, and as the most popular driver on the circuit, he will stay busy.
Past Performance at St. Pete: AJ Foyt Racing’s best start is from the pole position in 2014 with Takuma Sato and best finish is sixth in 2016 (Sato). Sebastien Bourdais is a two-time winner (2017, 2018) with Dale Coyne Racing and he began his INDYCAR career by winning the pole in St. Petersburg as a rookie for Newman-Haas Racing. Charlie Kimball’s best start in St. Pete is eighth in 2019 with Carlin and his best finish is ninth in 2012 with Ganassi Racing.
Bryant Heating & Cooling Systems returns as an associate sponsor of the No. 14 Chevrolet. The brand has worked with Kanaan for 12 of the last 13 NTT INDYCAR SERIES seasons. Bryant is a part of UTC Climate, Controls & Security, a unit of United Technologies Corp., a leading provider to the aerospace and building systems industries worldwide.
Browning Chapman LLC returns as an associate sponsor the No. 14 Chevrolet. The specialty contracting company is based in Indianapolis and 2018 marked their first foray into motorsports sponsorship.
K-Air Leasing LLC returns to AJ Foyt Racing as an associate sponsor of the No. 4 and No. 14 Chevrolets. Kurt Westman, founder of Alfe Heat Treating (which he sold IN 2018), continues to remain involved with the team with his private charter jet company K-Air Leasing LLC. It will mark Westman’s 10th straight year as a sponsor of the team.
Sexton Companies marks another year as an associate sponsor of the No. 4 and No. 14 Chevrolets. What started as an associate sponsor on the third Foyt Racing entry at the 2015 Indianapolis 500 has grown into a season-long sponsorship for this Indianapolis-based company that builds, develops and maintains apartment complexes. The company’s current holdings are located in Indiana and Ohio.
Sherwin-Williams Coil Coatings returns as an associate sponsor of the No. 4 and No. 14 Chevrolets. The sponsorship originated with Valspar which was acquired by Sherwin-Williams in 2017. Founded in 1866, the Sherwin-Williams Company is a global leader in the manufacture, development, distribution, and sale of paints, coatings and related products to professional, industrial, commercial, and retail customers.
The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will be televised live on NBC Sports Network (NBCSN) on Sunday, March 15, starting at 3:00 p.m. ET. Qualifying will be broadcast tape delayed on NBCSN on Saturday from 10-11:30 PM ET. All of the practices will be available on NBC’s subscription-based service, INDYCAR Pass on NBC Sports Gold, available for $54.99. https://www.nbcsports.com/gold/indycar.