Later this year, the best baseball players in the world will descend upon Marlins Park for the 2017 MLB All-Star Game.
But this week, the baseball stadium is hosting some the greatest names in world of auto racing for a different kind of All-Star event. One that involves turning laps a track that winds through the outfield, crosses a start/finish line that nearly brushes the pitching mound scratched by the home cleats of Wei-Yin Chen, former standout Josh Johnson and the late Jose Fernandez.
Race of Champions has arrived in Miami.
CLICK IT: Watch practice highlights with Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi
The two-day event, which officially kicks off Jan. 21, takes place in the United States for the first time ever and the first time in a baseball stadium. Four of the seven participating Verizon IndyCar Series drivers are South Florida residents and mark the moment with pride.
“I’ve been here with the kids for baseball games and I’ve thrown out the first pitch,” said 2012 Verizon IndyCar Series champion and 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay. “It’s special to me to be inside this ballpark. People from Palm Beach, Naples, Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, they all come over because this is such a special stadium.”
The five-year-old stadium hosts a large range of non-baseball events. Weddings, bar mitzvahs, graduations and an upcoming Guns n’ Roses concert have been planned with the capacity for up to 36,742 people. Most familiar, however, are the 81 games it’s used as the home of the Miami Marlins each baseball season.
"When they first approached us and said, 'We want to convert the field to a race track,' I definitely looked at them and said, ‘Are you serious?’ The more we started looking at it, we became very intrigued," Claude Delorme, Marlins vice president of operations and events told the Sun-Sentinel. "The fact that they've been doing this for over 25 years overseas and we have the opportunity to be the first venue in the U.S., I said ‘Let's do it.’"
Two-time Indy 500 champion Juan Pablo Montoya hasn’t thrown out a first pitch at Marlins Park or competed in Race of Champions, but is familiar with the park and his competitors.
“We come here sometimes with the kids to watch,” Montoya said. “It’s a little different to see a racetrack here. It’s pretty amazing what they’ve done.
“There’s so many [familiar drivers] to be honest with you. (Formula One champ) Sebastian Vettel, I’ve known him since he was in Formula BMW. My brother (Federico) was his teammate. So I know him really well. I raced against (multi-time Le Mans winner) Tom Kristensen in 1997, so it’s really cool to see old faces and new faces.”
Of the competitors, which includes four-time Formula One champion Vettel and NASCAR champions Kurt and Kyle Busch, seven have current ties to the Verizon IndyCar Series. Between them, they have 82 race wins, eight Indianapolis 500 victories and three Indy car championships. James Hinchcliffe, Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, Alexander Rossi and Gabby Chaves join Hunter-Reay and Montoya on the grid.
The weekend starts with the head-to-head Race of Champions competition on Saturday, where drivers compete in identical cars in group format to begin, with the winners advancing to the quarterfinals and racing in knockout rounds from there. On Sunday, patriotism takes over as drivers pair up with their countrymen to claim the ROC Nations Cup. Germany leads with seven cup wins.
Sunday’s race will be televised live in the US on CBS Sports Network with highlights from the individual competition to air at a later date. The event opens to the public on Jan. 21. Fans can purchase tickets and view an event schedule at raceofchampions.com.
From warning tracks to racetracks.#ROCMiami | @RaceOfChampions pic.twitter.com/K54nmR0xHE