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


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

Strong rebounds for Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi amid some disappointments in the Indy 500


INDIANAPOLIS – Alex Palou had not turned a wheel wrong the entire Month of May at the Indy 500 until Rinus VeeKay turned a wheel into the Chip Ganassi Racing pole-sitter leaving pit road on Lap 94.

“There is nothing I could have done there,” Palou told NBC Sports. “It’s OK, when it is my fault or the team’s fault because everybody makes mistakes. But when there is nothing, you could have done differently there, it feels bad and feels bad for the team.”

Marcus Ericsson was a master at utilizing the “Tail of the Dragon” move that breaks the draft of the car behind him in the closing laps to win last year’s Indianapolis 500. On Sunday, however, the last of three red flags in the final 16 laps of the race had the popular driver from Sweden breathing fire after Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden beat him at his own game on the final lap to win the Indianapolis 500.

Despite the two disappointments, team owner Chip Ganassi was seen on pit road fist-bumping a member on his four-car team in this year’s Indianapolis 500 after his drivers finished second, fourth, sixth and seventh in the tightly contested race.

Those are pretty good results, but at the Indianapolis 500, there is just one winner and 32 losers.

“There is only one winner, but it was a hell of a show,” three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and Chip Ganassi Racing consultant Dario Franchitti told NBC Sports. “Alex was very fast, and he got absolutely caught out in somebody else’s wreck. There was nothing he could have done, but he and the 10 car, great recovery.

“Great recovery by all four cars because at half distance, we were not looking very good.”

After 92 laps, the first caution flew for Sting Ray Robb of Dale Coyne Racing hitting the Turn 1 wall.

During pit stops on Lap 94, Palou had left his stall when the second-place car driven by VeeKay ran into him, putting Palou’s Honda into the wall. The car sustained a damaged front wing, but the Chip Ganassi crew was able to get him back in the race on the lead lap but in 28th position.

Palou ultimately would fight his way to a fourth-place finish in a race the popular Spaniard could have won. His displeasure with VeeKay, whom he sarcastically called “a legend” on his team radio after the incident, was evident.

“The benefit of being on pole is you can drive straight and avoid crashes, and he was able to crash us on the side on pit lane, which is pretty tough to do, but he managed it,” Palou told NBC Sports. “Hopefully next year we are not beside him. Hopefully, next year we have a little better luck.”

Palou started on the pole and led 36 laps, just three fewer than race leader Pato O’Ward of Arrow McLaren Racing.

“We started really well, was managing the fuel as we wanted, our car was pretty good,” Palou said. “Our car wasn’t great, we dropped to P4 or P5, but we still had some good stuff.

“On the pit stop, the 21 (VeeKay) managed to clip us. Nothing we could have done there. It was not my team’s fault or my fault.

“We had to drop to the end. I’m happy we made it back to P4. We needed 50 more laps to make it happen, but it could have been a lot worse after that contact.

“I learned a lot, running up front at the beginning and in mid-pack and then the back. I learned a lot.

“It feels amazing when you win it and not so good when things go wrong. We were a bit lucky with so many restarts at the end to make it back to P4 so I’m happy with that.”

Palou said the front wing had to be changed and the toe-in was a bit off, but he still had a fast car.

In fact, his Honda was the best car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway all month. His pole-winning four lap average speed of 234.217 miles per hour around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a record for this fabled race.

Palou looked good throughout the race, before he had to scratch and claw and race his way back to the top-five after he restarted 28th.

In the Indianapolis 500, however, the best car doesn’t always win.

“It’s two years in a row that we were leading the race at the beginning and had to drop to last,” Palou said. “Maybe next year, we will start in the middle of the field and go on to win the race.

“I know he didn’t do it on purpose. It’s better to let that pass someday.”

Palou said the wild racing at the end was because the downforce package used in Sunday’s race means the drivers have to be aggressive. The front two cars can battle for the victory, but cars back in fourth or fifth place can’t help determine the outcome of the race.

That is when the “Tail of the Dragon” comes into the play.

Franchitti helped celebrate Ericsson’s win in 2022 with his “Tail of the Dragon” zigzag move – something he never had to do in any of his three Indianapolis 500 victories because they all finished under caution.

In 2023, however, IndyCar Race Control wants to make every attempt to finish the race under green, without going past the scheduled distance like NASCAR’s overtime rule.

Instead of extra laps, they stop the race with a red flag, to create a potential green-flag finish condition.

“You do what you have to do to win within the rules, and it’s within the rules, so you do it,” Franchitti said. “The race is 200 laps and there is a balance.

“Marcus did a great job on that restart and so did Josef. It was just the timing of who was where and that was it.

“If you knew it was going to go red, you would have hung back on the lap before.

“Brilliant job by the whole Ganassi organization because it wasn’t looking very good at half-distance.

“Full marks to Josef Newgarden and Team Penske.”

Franchitti is highly impressed by how well Ericsson works with CGR engineer Brad Goldberg and how close this combination came to winning the Indianapolis 500 two-years-in-a-row.

It would have been the first back-to-back Indy 500 winner since Helio Castroneves in 2001 and 2002.

“Oh, he’s a badass,” Franchitti said Ericsson. “He proved it last year. He is so calm all day. What more do you need? As a driver, he’s fast and so calm.”

Ericsson is typically in good spirits and jovial.

He was stern and direct on pit road after the race.

“I did everything right, I did an awesome restart, caught Josef off-guard and pulled away,” Ericsson said on pit lane. “It’s hard to pull away a full lap and he got me back.

“I’m mostly disappointed with the way he ended. I don’t think it was fair and safe to do that restart straight out of the pits on cold tires for everyone.

“To me, it was not a good way to end that race.

“Congrats to Josef. He didn’t do anything wrong. He is a worthy champion, but it shouldn’t have ended like that.”

Palou also didn’t understand the last restart, which was a one-start showdown.

“I know that we want to finish under green,” Palou said. “Maybe the last restart I did, I didn’t understand. It didn’t benefit the CGR team.

“I’m not very supportive of the last one, but anyway.”

Dixon called the red flags “a bit sketchy.”

“The red flags have become a theme to the end of the race, but sometimes they can catch you out,” Dixon said. “I know Marcus is frustrated with it.

“All we ask for is consistency. I think they will do better next time.

“It’s a tough race. People will do anything they can to win it and with how these reds fall, you have to be in the right place at the right time. The problem is when they throw a Red or don’t throw a Red dictates how the race will end.

“It’s a bloody hard race to win. Congrats to Josef Newgarden and to Team Penske.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500