From Fort Lauderdale, we head back south once again, this time skirting Miami and continuing onto the famous Florida Keys. The archipelago arcs south and west over 120 miles, ending at Key West. Our conservative schedule sees us in an AirBnB towards the upper end of the Keys in Key Largo – and not an especially glamorous corner. That said, we are a short walk from a bustling local restaurant which vends great beer and serves a cracking blackened mahi mahi. It also offers a first chance to try key lime pie which is a contrast to the type of gravy-laden pastry creations we are accustomed to in Yorkshire.
It would appear that anywhere in this area selling key lime pie will attempt to pass it off as ‘the world’s best’ so it’s hard to make an empirical judgement without trying every one (which is tempting). It is fair to say, though, that this is among the best desserts I’ve ever tasted and virtually warrants the trip by itself.
It is easy to forget in America that there is often purpose beyond merely eating and drinking. Key West beckons and it’s a relaxed three-hour drive. Much of the drive along US Route 1 is through lightly populated areas, though the many islands are linked by scores of bridges, offering tantalising glimpses of blue seas and coral reefs. The usual proliferation of bars and restaurants lines the highway though they are distinctive and characterful with many decorated with fibreglass sharks or manatees.
Key West itself is busy and atmospheric. It’s not easy to park – and certainly not inexpensive either – but we find ourselves in a distinctive and vibrant town. It’s strange to find that one can walk in 20 minutes from the Atlantic on the East to the Gulf of Mexico on the west.
The harbour is full of boats, with pelicans and huge tarpon fish dominating the water. Look closely though and the odd shark makes an appearance, as well as beautiful jewelled tropical fish. Green iguanas bask on the rocks, swimming from one sun trap to the next.
The waterfront is dominated by opportunities for more food and more booze – as well as any number of stalls offering diving and boat trips. Limited time precludes any marine exploration but the calm waters look incredibly inviting.
The town itself is architecturally interesting and very different to anything else we’ve seen before in the US. Key West is closer to Havana than it is to Miami and retained strong cultural and trading links with Cuba before the rise of the communist regime. Lapped timber colonial-type buildings dominate the streets with most gently glowing in pastel colours.
Wild chickens – dubbed ‘gypsy chickens’ by the locals – run amok, with colourful roosters loudly announcing themselves and lines of baby chicks parading behind their mothers through the urban streets. As a metaphor for a wild, colourful, noisy place, they make a pretty convincing case for themselves.
As much as its brash chickens, Key West is famous for its dive bars. The drinking culture is notable and there seem to be hundreds of folk carrying open beers in the street, even during the early afternoon. Cool bars buzz with live music and the smells of grilled food. There’s a carefree atmosphere and general sense of joie de vivre. In many respects, the nearest American town I’d compare it to would be New Orleans, with its ageing building stock and dedication to hard partying. NOLA carries with it, though, a slightly dark atmosphere – a sense of underlying unrest. Perhaps a little voodoo in the air, the result of those unique above-ground cemeteries or maybe simply because of underlying social issues. Whatever the reason, where New Orleans is beguiling but perhaps laden with a hint of menace, Key West feels vibrant and fun.
As with anywhere on Florida’s western seaboard, Key West offers incredible sunsets. Each evening a crowd gathers in Mallory Square to cheer – somewhat troublingly – the dipping of the sun. A traditional sailing ship crosses the sea at the horizon. In spite of the bizarre public applause, it’s quite magical.
Sadly I am – unlike my companion – utterly sober throughout the day and so saddle the burden of getting us safely back to our quaint apartment in Key Largo. We pause at the Florida Keys Brewery, a fine establishment which has captured and embraced the colourful Floridian aesthetic. A couple of take-outs enable me to sample its wares despite my status as designated driver. Highly recommended for craft beer fans who also enjoy sunshine and sea.
Our next destination is St Petersburg on the west coast and quite a distance. We have allowed a full day for the drive to keep proceedings relaxed and we soon find ourselves bisecting the Everglades. We had explored a little of the Everglades during a previous visit but way up in the north of the system at Kissimmee. The southern Everglades feel quite different – drier and endlessly large. Native American Indian settlements abound including several large casinos; not something we had expected.
We wisely pick the hottest part of the day to engage in a 15-mile bicycle ride through the wilds. Having scarcely ridden a ‘bike for 25 years, this is among our stupider ideas and the unrelating heat takes its toll – not aided by a lack of fitness which is cruelly exposed in the midday sun. We survive only by carefully rationing a packet of melted M&Ms over the two-hour ride.
Mercifully, our survival is under greater threat from the punishing atmospheric conditions than the indigenous wildlife which includes a great number of sizeable and menacing alligators. Many of these beasts seem very comfortable on the path we have to navigate, though they appear as disinterested in us as we are utterly petrified of them. Along the way we see any number of bird species, turtles and snakes happily coexisting. A towering concrete observation tower at the far end of the scenic ride provides incredible views across the sprawling landscape.
Having survived the native wildlife and the ferocious weather, it’s a relief to arrive in Naples in late afternoon. This is the Florida as I’d always imagined it: infinite palm trees, folk luxuriating on boats, golf courses ad infinitum and lots of retired couples looking extremely smug about life.
We only pause long enough for a bite to eat but Naples has a warm atmosphere and oozes money – though in a less obvious way to Miami.
Night has fallen when we arrive in St Petersburg but our destination is revelatory. We have booked an AirBnB apartment in the historic district which sounds fairly innocuous and of course, as Brits, we retain a little scepticism about anything described as ‘historic’ in America. What we find is a wonderful suburb which immediately feels like home.
The streets are paved with bricks which have been allowed to settle, the pavements (sidewalks, I suppose) are lined with grass and the houses generally have timber facades. All the residences feature a stoop or patio, with the area evidently safe enough to allow the occupants to leave outside their shoes and kids’ toys. What a revelation – it feels like a genuine community in the way we’ve never experienced before in America.
This sense is heightened by a trip to the local pub – The Old Northeastern Tavern. We are greeted with customary warmth but soon make new friends while propping up the bar and sampling a few of the recommended local brews. The pub sits opposite a plot of allotments and almost next door to a café selling great coffee and breakfast – something I need in significant quantity the next morning.
We are in St Petersburg for the opening round of the 2019 IndyCar season, which is kicking off with its traditional thrash around the challenging street / airport hybrid track. Considering the suburban paradise of the historic district, it’s surprising to find the downtown race track only 20 minutes’ walk away.
I arrive in time for Pirelli GT4 Challenge practice at the furthest end of the circuit. This category has really taken hold in North America, with decent entries in both this series and the Michelin Pilot equivalent under IMSA’s banner. There’s a strong domestic contingent with Camaros, Mustangs and a lone Panoz Avezzano facing down Porsches, Audis and McLarens from across the pond.
The big V8-engined machinery is the most exciting here, with the sound of those burly motors bouncing off the adjacent high-rises; the sheer power irresistible and looking hard to contain among the concrete barriers. It’s an entertaining session and provides a reminder of the lure of GT racing with its variety of shapes and sounds.
Equally frantic but perhaps under slightly greater control is the succeeding session for TCR entrants. A small field has assembled but their front-wheel drive dynamic offers a different perspective and reaffirms that these are quick cars, even if they seem somewhat incongruous in this context.
Where TCR is diverting but doesn’t elevate the pulse too significantly, the arrival on track of the IndyCar runners serves to raise goosebumps. My most recent IndyCar experience was the Indianapolis 500 a couple of years earlier and this is a very different experience. Gone is the three-wide 230mph drafting and in its place is a busy, high downforce hustle.
This is a short layout and the cars are round frequently and violently. The spectating is such that you can see straight into the drivers’ helmets as they muscle the turbocharged monsters through the tight streets. These cars are robust and feature no power steering so they need working hard. They come on boost aggressively and the bumps of my first viewing spot look fierce, even if the cars shrug them off with relative impunity under hard acceleration.
So close are you and so ferocious is the action that it’s hard to pick out drivers who are notably more ‘on it’ than their peers. A walk further around the track is instructive and it’s apparent that Will Power is already extremely comfortable in his Dallara, working right out to the barriers at dizzying speed. The proximity to such violence is intoxicating.
45 minutes isn’t enough time for the IndyCars to lose their shock and awe factor – I could study those guys at work all day.
The track action is non-stop and we are soon into the weekend’s first race; for Indy Pro 2000 – perhaps the North American ladder’s equivalent of F3. We continue clockwise around the circuit and are grateful for a little shade on a grassy knowl on the infield at the kink between turns nine and 10. This is pretty much a flat-out corner in a downforce-laden single-seater and runs between the stadium and the harbour. In feel, perhaps its nearest point of reference would be Tabac at Monaco, though more open.
The Indy Pro 2000 race is diverting, featuring a genuine two-car battle for the lead between Rasmus Lindh and Canadian Parker Thompson. Thompson’s entry is so late that he doesn’t even appear in the race programme. Interrupted by two safety car interventions Thompson snatches the lead out of our site towards the back-end of the race. One of the safety cars is the result of title favourite Kyle Kirkwood losing his nose during battling in the early laps. The Indy Pro 2000 cars are pretty entertaining, with little bursts of flame from the exhausts and they appear to race well enough. I really should have done a better job of studying the formbook ahead of the weekend to make the most of the chance of seeing the full single-seater ladder in action.
It’s a hectic schedule today and we miss much of the USF2000 and Indy Lights races in favour of exploring the paddock. Common with all domestic racing in this country, the paddock access is hugely refreshing. The teams aren’t hidden behind branded hoardings; instead all the cars are prepared in the open and the drivers are milling around preparing themselves for the forthcoming qualifying session.
The runners and riders are funnelled from the paddock to the pit lane through a corridor formed in low crowd barriers. This affords the fans the opportunity to see their heroes. Several, such as Tony Kanaan, pause for photo opportunities or autographs. It’s hard to imagine Formula One ever permitting such openness.
IndyCar qualifying is a staged process and we take our seats above the pit exit, offering a great view of pit road (in local parlance), the front stretch and turn one – the track’s best overtaking spot.
The big talking point out of the heats is the absence of Simon Pagenaud. While team mate Josef Newgarden just scrapes through, the Frenchman misses out on a spot in the top-12. Perhaps equally surprising is the progression through the heats of Ben Hanley. The sportscar regular is making his IndyCar debut with Dragonspeed with whom he is set to enjoy a busy 2019 aboard LMP1, LMP2 and Indy machinery.
Prior to the weekend, Colton Herta has been the subject of much discussion. The youngster (whose father I rather depressingly remember during his own IndyCar career) has been setting scorching times in winter testing and heads to Florida as a legitimate threat. Sadly for him, he loses a second between the first heat and round two, unable to progress into the Fast Six.
A Penske front row should not normally come as a surprise but the practice and testing times have painted a mixed picture. Ryan Hunter-Reay has come hard out of the blocks but can only manage fifth, while rookie Felix Rosenqvist has put the cat among the pigeons by out-pacing legendary team mate Scott Dixon. It sets up a fascinating race in which you wouldn’t dare call a winner.
Our day concludes with the opening GT4 battle which we enjoy from the outfield at turn one in the paddock. This may not present the finest photographic opportunities in the world but it’s an intriguing race, eventually settled in favour of Ian James’s Panoz ahead of Spencer Pumpelly’s Porsche Cayman. Having seen the thundering Panoz GT1, LMP900 and GT2 cars in action during the previous two decades, it’s great to see the Atlanta manufacturer take victory, especially as it sounds amazing.
This has been a long, hot day at the races and it’s a relief to find ourselves with a short walk back to our accommodation and the chance for a shower to scrub the sunscreen from our pores. Another trip to The Old Northeastern Tavern beckons.
Sunday dawns warm and sunny. This part of Florida boasts an incredibly temperate climate. With a gentle sea breeze but glorious sunshine all day it’s a welcome respite from the UK’s chilly spring mornings. Long shadows bath the circuit as the IndyCar runners head out for a final warm-up session ahead of the season’s first race. They’re flying through the high-speed kink on the harbourfront, turning in completely blind without the hint of a lift and skimming the barrier on the inside before easing it gently out to the outside wall on the exit. They’re absolutely walking the tightrope through here and a wander offline kicks up the dust and induces wicked twitches from unsettled cars.
In spite of the awe-inspiring progress through the kink, I wander back to my new favourite spot at turn nine where these drivers are really earning their crust. Standing just beyond the apex they appear to dive bomb towards you before engaging warp drive as they open up the steering again. The cars are dancing constantly through here with a gentle camber sucking them to the outside wall. The number of rubber marks on the concrete is testament to how hard they’ve been pushing; no margin for error around the streets of St Pete.
With the IndyCars facing final fettling ahead of the big event, eyes turn to the infield where Robert Wickens is starring in an autograph session. Wickens was fast becoming an IndyCar star before a horror shunt at Pocono left him with severe spinal cord injuries. His very brave and public recovery – as well as his breakthrough IndyCar rookie season – have earned him huge affection among the fans and he is mobbed throughout the weekend.
This is his first public appearance since his accident and looks overwhelmed by the response. The last time I saw the Canadian compete was the 2016 Zandvoort DTM weekend, where he was victorious. It’s sad to see him confined to a wheelchair but his humour and determination in the face of adversity are inspiring. In spite of his harrowing injuries, it feels certain that he’ll be back in an IndyCar one day and he’ll doubtless be the most popular driver on the grid.
Having wished Robert Wickens well in his recovery, I return to the trackside where a small pack of rasping Indy Lights aspirants is about to wage war. Having missed most of race one, I’m determined to enjoy this second encounter and perch on the exit of turn five for the duration. This is a long left-hand corner which blends into six before firing the protagonists towards the further end of the track.
The Indy Lights cars behave much like their older cousins with a distinctive, boosty power delivery and they look a real handful over the joints in the concrete surface.
While only a ten-car field, this year’s Indy Lights entry is dripping with talent. Much hyped is Rinus VeeKay, the well-funded Dutchman who has bounced into the category on the back of Indy Pro 2000 laurels in 2018. He survives an early clash with fellow title rival Oliver Askew on lap one to lead from the front. Askew is not so lucky and retires as a result of damage suffered against one of St Pete’s unyielding concrete walls.
VeeKey is able to win at a canter but not without race-long pressure from Zachary Claman and Brit Toby Sowery. It sets up what should be a fierce season-long title fight.
Our seats for the main event are once again at the end of the start / finish straight, on the infield directly above the pit exit. This turns out to be a cracking spot in which to watch the race, with turn one being the circuit’s main overtaking spot, as the racers leave the runway of the local airfield and turn onto the more conventional city streets.
The opening laps are all about Will Power, the Australian carrying his qualifying form into Sunday. An early caution period to clear up the Ryan Hunter-Reay’s expired Dallara presents an opportunity, though, for Felix Rosenqvist who catches Power napping off the restart and snatches the lead under braking into turn one in his first ever IndyCar race. He looks comfortable and composed at the front, heading 31 laps and the crowd starts to believe that it could witness a landmark rookie win.
Sadly the spectators are denied their pathos, with Josef Newgarden shuffling to the front with the help of a daring Tim Cindric strategy and a slightly obstructive Marco Andretti. Newgarden is able to run long at the second stops, hammering home a sequence of blistering laps. Meanwhile his rivals remain bottled up behind Andretti.
It’s at this stage of the race that Scott Dixon comes to the fore, muscling into second and chasing Newgarden all the way. Power completes the podium with Rosenqvist doubtless disappointed to slip to fourth.
The podium celebrations are completed between the paddock and pit road. Hanging out of the back of the grandstand offers the perfect view as Newgarden and Roger Penske shake hands in front of the victorious car. It’s the perfect launchpad for a 2019 title assault from America’s greatest race team and its latest sensation.
Street racing offers unique and special drama – the proximity to such potent machinery never loses its allure. As a pure racing spectacle, I honestly don’t believe much can touch it. IndyCar is a series right in its pomp once again with a beautiful car that races well and a wicked line-up of quality drivers.
St Petersburg may not stir the soul in quite the same way as Indianapolis, Road America or Laguna Seca but this is a terrific event. Constant warm weather and a welcoming city make an intoxicating backdrop to any motor race. When that motor race involves one of – if not the – best four-wheeled championships anywhere in the world, it’s the perfect way to kick off the season in earnest.