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What to know about this week’s IndyCar St. Pete Grand Prix

The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is back this weekend for the IndyCar Series’ traditional season opener. The three-day event starts Friday and ends with Sunday’s 100-lap IndyCar race (12:30 p.m., NBC).

Here’s what you need to know about this year’s Grand Prix:

Why is this year special?

This marks the 20th consecutive running of the Grand Prix. That makes it the second-longest uninterrupted race on IndyCar’s schedule, behind only the Indianapolis 500. It’s also the 12th time the Grand Prix has opened IndyCar’s season.

What’s the IndyCar, Grand Prix of St. Petersburg schedule?

IndyCar has an autograph session scheduled Friday afternoon from 12:30-1:30, then its first practice from 2:45-4 p.m.

On Saturday, IndyCar practices for an hour starting at 9:35 and qualifies from 2-3:30. The series warms up Sunday morning from 9:10-9:40 before the green flag at 12:30.

What else is happening on the track?

There are seven other races. Five are from IndyCar feeder series, including a Sunday event with INDY NXT — the equivalent of Triple-A baseball. There’s also a doubleheader from the IMSA VP Racing SportsCar Challenge, which is making its Grand Prix debut.

How can you watch IndyCar?

Sunday’s main event will air on NBC. Peacock will show IndyCar practice and qualifying sessions plus the INDY NXT race.

Who’s driving in the Grand Prix?

Six-time series champion Scott Dixon will be in the field, still looking for his first victory here. Defending race winner Marcus Ericsson is back, and so are five other Grand Prix victors: Scott McLaughlin, Josef Newgarden, Will Power, Graham Rahal and Colton Herta (a former Belleair resident who moved to Nashville).

In the feeder series, Gulfport’s Nikita Johnson was born and raised in Pinellas County. He became the event’s youngest winner last year at age 14 and has moved up to the USF Pro Championships series. Nolan Allaer moved to Fish Hawk when he was 3 before moving to Michigan before his sophomore year of high school. He’s a INDY NXT rookie.

What else is happening?

Two Thursday fixtures remain. They’re the annual 5K run at the course (5:30 p.m.) and free party in the park at North Straub Park (5-7:30).

A Friday addition is an evening commemoration of the event’s 20th year. At least 10 former race winners are expected to attend the benefit at the Mahaffey Theater, along with all four mayors who have worked with the event. Limited tickets for the public are $250.

After Saturday’s racing, Poison frontman Bret Michaels will perform on the plaza next to the theater. The concert is included in admission. Jon Bon Jovi will also be around Sunday (though he isn’t performing).

Has the track changed?

Not really. It’s the same 14-turn, 1.8-mile course that whizzes by the Dali Museum and marina while starting and finishing on the Albert Whitted Airport runway. But because this is a temporary circuit on city streets, the bumps and marks are never exactly the same. “We call it character,” Dixon said, “and I love character.”

Are there any major IndyCar changes in 2024?

The series is tweaking the practice format to try to spread out action. Everyone can drive for the first 20 minutes. Then the field splits in two and alternates 10-minute stints. IndyCar has been working on hybrid technology that was initially expected to debut this weekend, but that has been pushed back until after the Indy 500.