IndyCar gives back to the community through food donations at St. Pete

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In the broader sense, IndyCar considers itself a “community,” as much as a professional sports league. There is a sense of community in this tight-knit collection of race drivers, officials, mechanics, engineers and team owners.

It was on full display after last week’s cancellation of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

On a typical racing weekend, there are many lavish hospitality areas at a race course. The purpose is to entertain and feed teams, sponsors, partners, VIPs and other guests.

The “Paddock Club” is run by the IndyCar Series to entertain sponsors and key stakeholders. Team Penske’s hospitality area is geared toward sponsors, VIPs and guests. Honda has a hospitality unit for its friends, guests and key Honda Performance Development (HPD) officials. Chip Ganassi Racing and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing also have impressive units to cater to their sponsors and guests.

The largest team units belong to Andretti Autosport, nicknamed the “Andretti Amphitheater,” and the Arrow McLaren SP unit, which was already an impressive structure even before McLaren became a team principal in IndyCar. In addition to feeding its sponsors and VIP’s, Andretti’s unit also feeds breakfast and lunch to its crewmembers in the unit.

Because the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is annually the season opener for the NTT IndyCar Series, hospitality is in high-demand and often lavish.

This year was different, however. With the sudden cancellation of the event, teams were left with an enormous amount of food that never was prepared. It was not feasible to return home with highly perishable items.

IndyCar and its teams decided to donate it to local charities in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area to help feed the homeless or provide valuable food items to low-income families.

Longtime IndyCar Series friend and partner Fred Jones and his wife, Anita, helped spearhead the effort. He is part of the IndyCar Ministry and created a program known as the Rescue Food Ministry that began in 2005. IndyCar teams generally donate leftover food from hospitality units after each race, rather than throw it away.

Jones estimates over 1 million individuals have been fed since the program’s inception 15 years ago.

The cancellation of St. Petersburg meant thousands of pounds of food were donated before the hospitality units left St. Petersburg.

“It sends the correct message,” Rahal Letterman Lanigan Executive Chef Rob Wall told “As long as I’ve been doing this, it’s difficult where you create a menu, you have a working budget, you shop for it all, and the goal is to not run out and not have anything left over. That’s hard. I think the idea is they reap the benefit.

“Some people consider this to be a sport, but it’s not an every person’s sport. The thing about it is we’re not just willy-nilly pulling into town like the circus tossing stuff left and right. We are trying to leave a contribution or a positive impression with a community that we set up and left in.”

According to Wall, Rahal Letterman Lanigan brought $15,000 worth of food to the track. More than $8,000 worth of food was donated. That included meats, fish, fresh produce and bakery products that have a limited shelf life.

“We had the wherewithal to transport some things back to our race shops,” Wall said. “We can store and save those items. The things we donated were the type of things these operations rarely see. Fresh fruit. Fresh vegetables. Lettuce, greens, cheeses. We did donate some protein along with cookies, breads and desserts. It’s really the full spectrum.”

Wall was prepared to feed the crew and guests every day. In addition, there was a sponsor reception on Friday night.

“We expected 800 guests,” Wall explained. “We love going to Florida. The center of the plate items, the protein items, are things they don’t get to see from donations. Some of our menus included a honey-horseradish grilled tenderloin and a blackened grouper for Sunday. Our sponsor reception was going to do a seafood display with lobster and crab and shrimp from a menu they picked out. We were also going to do some burnt end pork belly sliders and a Korean beef taco slider.

“I have been with Bobby Rahal since 1995. A lot of times when people come to a race for the first time, they think they are going to get a flat Pepsi and a stale corn dog. So, it’s really easy to step into a role and continue to try to blow them away with what they are going to get as one of our guests or sponsors trackside.”

For those in need, they will be receiving much-needed nourishment at a very important time. The continually developing novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has meant shelves going bare in some places across the country. There also is a dearth of volunteers available to help these food banks.

The goal was donating the untouched food from at-track hospitality units to local community shelters and missions.

What made this situation more bountiful was the fact that the paddock had just arrived and was preparing for the tens of thousands of guests throughout the weekend.

Jones and the ministry collected a massive amount of ood from the hospitality areas of Andretti Autosport, Team Penske, Arrow McLaren SP, Rahal Letterman Lanigan, Honda, INDYCAR Paddock Club, Chip Ganassi Racing and IMS Productions/NBC.

He said he usually collects around 3,500 pounds of food at an event, but because there was no event this time, the ministry had six or seven 4×4 pallets of food that chefs and hospitality staffs had packed and packaged for the donation.

“There were thousands of pounds of food,” Anita Jones said. “One guy had a semi, a 28-foot truck, full of food.”

At St. Pete, the Rescue Food Ministry usually donates the food to St. Vincent de Paul, which is not far from the track. This year, there was such an abundance of food, they couldn’t take all of it.

The Salvation Army was contacted. That organization worked to bring other groups in the area to the track to collect food. One of those was RCS Pinellas. That organization is a full-service shelter with a mission “to support our neighbors facing hunger, homelessness, domestic violence, or a lack of basic needs.” They have distributed over 6 million pounds of food annually.

Team Penske donated about 400 pounds of food. Andretti Autosport had prepared to feed over 400 people daily over the course of the weekend via hospitality and crew meals. The food supply was roughly 1,200 meals and valued at approximately $8,000. Ganassi donated more than 300 meals. Rahal Letterman Lanigan donated approximately $8,000 worth of perishable food.

McLaren Arrow SP from their Club 5 hospitality donated 50 pounds of grouper, 60 pounds of bacon, 40 pounds of grated cheese, 60 pounds of flank steak, 16 pounds of scallops, 40 gallons of bottled water, 45 dozen eggs, 100 pounds of potatoes, eight cases of assorted fruit (melons, pineapples, cantaloupe), 20 dozen dinner rolls and 10 gallons of orange juice.

These were all high-grade, high-end restaurant quality food items.

It also reflects the strong sense of community that teams in IndyCar feel as they try to leave a positive impressive on local communities.

Wall discussed that sense of civic duty on his team, where co-owners Bobby Rahal, Michael Lanigan and David Letterman all give back to the community.

“Bobby, from the early beginning and his sense of family, we knew we needed to do the right thing,” Wall said. “This is the epitome of doing the right thing.

“David is a very unique individual. We did a cookbook the first year I started, and David contributed a recipe. It was very simple. He said it was from his mom, and it was called, ‘Nachos a la Letterman.’

“It was open a bag of Doritos, open some Cheez-wiz, voila, you are ready to go. We included that in the cookbook.

“He is also about the community. When we had the Steak n’ Shake thing handing out milkshakes, that was a big deal.

“For Michael Lanigan, it’s all about family. He hosts a luncheon for some of his longtime employees, he takes them to the 500, we give them dinner and they see practice. It’s all about the whole experience and all about family.”

True character is often on full display during tough times. This was an example of what IndyCar can do to help during an uncertain time.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500

April 9 in Motorsports History: Al Unser Jr. gets sixth Long Beach win

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The list of winners in the Grand Prix of Long Beach is a ‘who’s who’ of open-wheel racing.

Mario Andretti won at the famed street course four times. His son Michael won there twice.

Paul Tracy is also a four-time winner at the beach. Alex Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya, Sebastien Bourdais, and Alexander Rossi also have won at the famed course multiple times.

But there is only one “King of the Beach”: Al Unser Jr.

The winningest driver in the race’s history, Unser won at Long Beach four consecutive times from 1988-91. He won again in 1994 and entered the 1995 edition as the race’s defending champion and the defending CART champion as well.

Starting fourth, Unser made slight contact with Gil de Ferran when he passed the Brazilian on Lap 3. He then continued to move up to the front, taking the race lead from Teo Fabi on Lap 30.

Once he had the lead, Unser ran away from the field, winning by more than 23 seconds over Scott Pruett.

Unser’s victory was such a familiar scene that after the race, CART news manager John Procida began the winner’s news conference with the following statement: “Well, we have a very familiar face on the top rung of the podium. As we listed on the prerace press release, this seems to be the Al Unser Invitational.”

Indeed it was. Unser’s victory was his sixth at Long Beach, and the 28th of his career. overall. While it would be his last win there, Unser continued to race at Long Beach through 1998 before missing 1999 with a broken leg and moving to the Indy Racing Leauge in 2000.

In 2009, Unser was inducted into the Long Beach Motorsports Walk of Fame, which honors significant contributors to the race and California motorsports community.

“It truly is just an honor to be mentioned with the names and the legends that have already been put into the sidewalk,” Unser said during the induction ceremony. “To have Brian (Redman, the inaugural winner of the race) and Parnelli (Jones) is really an honor and just to be in their company is very, very special.”

Also on this date:

1971: Jacques Villeneuve was born in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Canada. The second-generation driver was one of the best in open-wheel racing during the 1990s, winning the Indianapolis 500 and CART championship in ’95 and becoming a Formula One champion two years later.

1989: Rick Mears dominated CART’s Checker Autoworks 200 at Phoenix International Raceway, leading every lap from the pole and lapping the field.

2011: Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas won the Porsche 250 at Barber Motorsports Park, their sixth consecutive victory in Grand Am competition. Their lengthy win streak, which started on Aug. 7, 2010 at Watkins Glen, prompted Grand Am to offer a $25,000 bounty for any Daytona Prototype team that could beat the dominant duo. The Action Express trio of Joao Barbosa, J.C. France, and Terry Borcheller finally unseated Pruett and Rojas in the series’ next round at Virginia International Raceway.

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter @michaele1994