ST. PETERSBURG, Florida – One of the world’s most recognizable broadcasters, a baseball Hall of Famer and an ESPN football analyst who played 12 NFL seasons helped kick off the Verizon IndyCar Series season at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg today.
Race fans expected to see Ken Griffey Jr., the Hall of Fame outfielder who played for the Seattle Mariners and Cincinnati Reds, and ESPN football analyst Mark Schlereth, who played guard for 12 seasons with the Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos, at the grand prix. Griffey signed up to ride in Honda’s Fastest Seat in Sports with Mario Andretti, pacing the field of 21 to start the race in a custom-built two-seat Indy car. Schlereth was the grand marshal and gave the “start your engines” command.
Schlereth also went for an early morning thrill ride in the two-seater with Andretti and toured the INDYCAR paddock.
“For me, the biggest highlight is to look at how much goes into running this race. The teamwork. We see on the outside looking in, the drivers. But all the behind-the-scenes people that make this thing go and how much everybody has to work in unison,” said Schlereth. “It’s a fascinating process that I’ve never really understood until I got to go through it today and watch it kind of unfold.”
While Griffey (shown at right with Graham Rahal) and Schlereth were learning more, the Verizon IndyCar Series’ celebrity team co-owner, David Letterman, was showing his famous friend, MSNBC’s Brian Williams, host of “The 11th Hour with Brian Williams,” around the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing pit.
There were other stars on hand, too. NFL wide receiver Vincent Jackson and former Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Mike Alstott also took rides with Andretti on race morning. (Schlereth and Alstott are pictured at top with Andretti.)
“It was cool. The ride was fascinating and it wasn’t the speed because you expect to go fast,” said Schlereth. “The exhilarating part was actually breaking, going into a turn and then accelerating out of the thing and coming into some of the soft corners when you’re actually going full speed, pulling Gs and it looks like you are going to slam into a wall.”
“Car Matchmaker” host Spike Feresten attended the race, too. The television writer and personality, who has written for “Saturday Night Live,” “Late Show with David Letterman” and “Seinfeld,” hilariously tweeted a photo of him, Letterman and Williams.
Griffey’s takeaway from the day is that the job of an INDYCAR driver is a challenging one. He was in a firesuit for 25 minutes and rode three laps with Andretti, pacing the field before the race.
“It was such an honor to ride with Mario,” said Griffey, who attended last year’s St. Pete race as a guest photographer for ESPN. “I can’t believe how these guys do it for three hours.”