Baseball won’t return to Marlins Park until the spring, and by looking at the place now, one would question if the game is actually played there.
The domed ballpark, at least for the next few days, has been transformed into a race track.
Although horses would be better suited to the grass outfield, racing cars will zip around a tight track squeezed into the friendly confines of Little Havana as the Race of Champions has taken over.
“This is a unique experience for sure,” said 2015 NASCAR Cup champ Kyle Busch, one of the drivers in this collection of top pilots from various top-end series such as NASCAR, IndyCar and Formula 1 who will compete in the different races.
“To come be a part of ROC and have the chance to race against all the drivers and guys from all the other kinds motorsports is cool. ... I’m looking forward to meeting these guys and racing against them. It’s fun, but there’s still competition.”
The Race of Champions, which has a three-year deal with the Marlins, brought their event to North America for the first time after holding it in such locales as the Stade de France in Paris, London’s Wembley Stadium, Beijing’s Olympic Stadium and London’s former Olympic Stadium (2015).
Marlins Park, despite its tight dimensions, appears to be a nice fit for the format of this time-trial racing.
Forget about the Cup cars tearing around the big oval at Homestead or the sleek open-wheel cars sliding around Indianapolis.
The racing at Marlins Park won’t be like that.
No, in these races, individual drivers will compete in completely identical race cars — there are eight different kinds — and see who has the best time each time around.
To set up the track inside a ballpark, plastic covering was brought in to try and protect the grass underneath it — although the Marlins will put down new turf before the World Baseball Classic arrives in March and the Fish follow in April.
“Y'all really put a race track on my position,” Miami second baseman Dee Gordon responded to a tweet of the track at the park. Gordon noted that Giancarlo Stanton’s spot in right field isn’t covered up.
With the covering in place, asphalt was poured to create two looping race surfaces with a shared double lane running in from home plate to centerfield.
Drivers will be assigned which lane they are in and will start on one loop then cross over and finish on the other.
On Thursday, Travis Pastrana and Busch were testing out different cars with members of the local media along as passengers.
On one pass, Pastrana went the wrong way and nearly collided with Busch. There could be more than one close call this weekend.
“Expect the unexpected,” he said with a laugh to the reporter who was riding shotgun. “What had happened was, directions; I have never been good at listening to them. I think I have it figured out.”
Said Busch: “I didn’t know if he was supposed to zig and he was supposed to zag or what so we messed up a little bit. Luckily there was no contact.”
The winner of each individual race gets to move on to the next round and a trip in a different ride.
The last driver standing will claim the championship.
The laps don’t take long as they encompass about 700 yards. Unlike NASCAR, IndyCar or F-1, these laps will be pure sprints. Some of the cars can hit 150 on the speedometer.
Saturday’s opening race features Busch against F-1 champ Jenson Button; former Indy 500 champ Tony Kanaan will then meet last year’s 500 pole-sitter James Hinchcliffe. And so it goes down the line.
“It’s great to be in Miami, I love coming here and being a part of everything,” said Busch, who is used to coming to South Florida to run his Cup car at Homestead.
“There’s unique talent here with the best of racing competing against each other. As a pure racer, it’s cool to race against everyone and do it in eight different kinds of cars. Well, you hope. You have to [win] to be able to do that.”
While the Race of Champions is held Saturday, the cars will be back on the tracks on Sunday for a ROC Nations Cup race where the American-born drivers will battle the rest of the field.
For those drivers who live in South Florida during their down time like Helio Castroneves, Kanaan and Juan Pablo Montoya, being able to drive in front of friends and family so close to home is pretty ideal.
“It’s unbelievable to be back in South Florida racing cars again,” said 2012 Indy 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay, who went to high school at Cardinal Gibbons in Fort Lauderdale.
“I did the Miami Grand Prix back in the day but to see a race track taking shape here in Marlins Park —where I bring my family for games — is incredible.”
RACE OF CHAMPIONS — MARLINS PARK
▪ When: Saturday and Sunday.
▪ Where: Marlins Park, Miami.
▪ TV: CBS Sports Network.
▪ Top drivers: Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves, Alexander Rossi, James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Travis Pastrana, Scott Speed, Sebastian Vettel, Tony Kanaan, Jenson Button, Felipe Massa, Tom Kristensen, Petter Solberg and David Coulthard.
▪ Tickets: 1-877-MARLINS or HERE
▪ Schedule — Saturday: FanFest on West Plaza, 11:30-12:30 p.m.; Show begins, 2; Driver introductions, 2:30; Race Of Champions, 3-6; FanFest, 6-8. Sunday: FanFest, 10-11:30 a.m.; Show begins, 11; Driver introductions, 11:30; ROC Nations Cup (America vs. The World) noon-3 p.m.