C Jeff Christy signals a go to his lap of the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg track in a pace car
Mike Alstott sat in the passenger seat, strapped in with a harness-like device over both shoulders. Tampa Bay Buccaneer team photographer Tom Wagner was squeezed into the small back seat, underneath a roll bar. At the wheel, a professional driver eased the red, convertible Ford Mustang with the killer engine and super-grip tires out onto the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg track.
As the pace car rolled away from the gathered crowd, the driver announced loudly that, since there was a third person in the back, she was going to take it slow. After the three had rounded the first bend, however, she announced a change of plans.
"I just said that because there were people listening," said the driver, who then immediately red-lined the Mustang and began hugging the wall around the track's corners. It was the ride of a lifetime for Alstott and Wagner, accomplished in about 45 seconds.
The Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, a CART event that has taken over downtown St. Pete for the week, will be run Sunday afternoon at 1:00 p.m. Three members of the World Champion Buccaneers – Alstott, C Jeff Christy and WR Joe Jurevicius – will be on hand to serve as Grand Marshals. Their duties will include the announcement of the famous opening line, "Gentlemen, start your engines." On Friday, Alstott and Christy paid an early visit to the track to get a special tour.
A line of suped-up pace cars – Mustangs, Chevrolet Corvettes, BMWs, Dodge Vipers, Acura NSXs and Toyota Solaras – ran a series of visitors on laps around the track. The course covers 1.086 miles and includes a combination of downtown streets and runways at Albert Whitted Airport. Alstott and Christy each were treated to several laps on this winding track, with the Buccaneer fullback waving to his wife and three children each time he passed the starting point.
"That was pretty cool," said a wind-blown Alstott after his ride. "That was something different. I wouldn't want to be behind the wheel, but in the passenger seat it was pretty cool. It gives you a new perspective on what Grand Prix is all about and what you see on TV every day when you can actually sit in the car. We're in a pace car, and that's fast, and then you see those big cars out there going around those turns (in the race). Some of those turns are tight, and those guys going around there that fast? Unbelievable."
Christy took several laps in a white-and-blue BMW and a purple Mustang. All of the pace cars got up to top speeds of 100-110 miles per hour on the straightaways, and took the turns tight, as the drivers will on Sunday. The actual open-wheel Grand Prix cars will reach straightaway speeds of 200 miles per hour.
"I liked it," said Christy. "The smile probably won't leave my face for a couple days.
"It's neat to see the lines they take in the straightaways and going into the turns, and how suddenly they break. When you first get in, it seems pretty jerky, but that's just the way it is. It was pretty neat to ride with somebody who really knows how to drive."
Alstott, who tried his hand in the batting cage with the Philadelphia Phillies on Thursday, continued his Walter Mitty week with another experience new to his 29 years.
"It's been an awesome ride," said Alstott, no pun intended. "Up to the Super Bowl and after, it's been non-stop, we haven't really relaxed yet. It's been crazy, but I love living at a fast pace, doing different things and being involved in events like this and yesterday with the Phillies. Anything I can absorb in life just makes it that much more special. To have a World Championship ring on top of it really tops it off."
Like baseball, he puts CART racing below football on his preference list and figures his constant collisions with NFL linebackers are a rougher way to make a living. "But I didn't hit a wall, so I can't really compare it," he admitted.
"I wouldn't want to do this, and I don't want to be an owner either. But being on the track in a pace car gives you kind of a perspective of the driver. We didn't go quite up to their speed, but as far as the tight turns and the acceleration, it was pretty awesome."
The 250-pound fullback admitted to a being just a bit uneasy for the first few turns before settling in and enjoying the experience fully.
"I had to get used to the car a little bit. The driver was awesome as far as making it comfortable and taking the turns. It was awesome, it really was."
Alstott and Christy also visited the headquarters for the Adrian Fernandez race team a few hundred yards from the track. Fernandez, the only driver on the CART circuit who currently owns his own team, came out to chat with the Bucs as they watched a crew work on the team's two cars. Transportation Chief Michael McCormack also talked with Christy at length about the cars' specs, from the weight of the vehicles to fuel usage to tire wear. Christy learned, among other things, that the cars weigh approximately 1,550 pounds and boast a stunning 850 horsepower.
Alstott and Christy (plus Jurevicius) will get to see those cars in action on Sunday when they return for the race itself. The three will watch the race from a box near the finish line and also visit the pits to watch the crews in action.
Grand Marshal duties are honorary and Grand Marshals are chosen based on their interest in racing and promoting community pride and spirit. As race fans and Tampa Super Bowl heroes, Alstott and Christy were a perfect choice.