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Persistence puts Grand Prix on St. Petersburg streets

A motor sports marketer didn't accept repeated rejections. Thanks to his tenacity, St. Petersburg will host a big-league street race.

By BRYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 20, 2002

A motor sports marketer didn't accept repeated rejections. Thanks to his tenacity, St. Petersburg will host a big-league street race.

ST. PETERSBURG -- For several years, the influential president of the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach, Calif., didn't return Tom Begley's calls.

Finally, Chris Pook sent a short, firm letter. He wasn't interested in the St. Petersburg businessman's dream of running a CART auto race here.

But Begley pursued Pook on a variety of fronts. A few months later, in August 2001, Pook succumbed to the motor sports marketer's persistence. He found himself standing with Begley and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker on the 20th-story balcony of the Bank of America building, gazing toward Tampa Bay.

In the afternoon sunlight, Pook told Baker that the waterfront near the Bayfront Center would be perfect for the world-class, open-wheel street race Begley wanted.

"The mayor said, "The name St. Petersburg has to be embedded in the name of the event,' " Begley, 57, recalls. "Chris said, "Mr. Mayor, of course, the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.' "

That day, Aug. 14, 2001, marked the improbable climax of Begley's decadelong quest to bring big-league auto racing to St. Petersburg.

It was a long way from 1997, when a race he promoted left him owing St. Petersburg $40,000. A long way from those days of being shunned by Pook.

"He had a passion for (the race), he believed in it, he thought it would be good for the community," Pook said. "And God bless him, because if he hadn't, we wouldn't be looking at a race next February (21-23)."

The silver-bearded Begley first came onto the Tampa Bay scene 12 years ago.

He and his wife, Shirley Spear Begley, moved to the area after Begley met Danka founder Dan Doyle during a visit. Doyle offered him a consulting job.

Danka was sponsoring a Lakeland group that raced grand touring prototype cars. Begley was enthralled and wanted Danka to get more involved, but that didn't fit Danka's plans.

But Begley had found his calling. He left Danka to become a motor sports marketer.

The promoter that had staged a 1990 Grand Prix in St. Petersburg had gone bankrupt, and Begley bought the assets in court in 1991 for less than $50,000. He began working to revive the race.

He appeared again and again before the City Council, asking them to agree to terms, promising that he was near a deal.

He finally staged his first race in 1996. The group Begley persuaded to hold it lost a half-million dollars. The 1997 race broke even. There hasn't been one since.

In 1998, Tropicana Field was undergoing renovations. In 1999, Begley said, city officials asked him not to hold a race because St. Petersburg was preparing for the Final Four.

Meanwhile, he was becoming friendly with Baker, who at the time was a mergers and acquisitions attorney. He began to seek the future mayor's advice about the race. Begley eventually volunteered on Baker's mayoral campaign.

"My wife, thank God, was working all this time, very successful" as a holistic nursing trainer specializing in therapeutic touch, he said. "Without that, we simply couldn't have continued to pursue this."

Now, he is earning a salary again as general manager of the Grand Prix for Dover Motorsports, the company that owns the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach.

The City Council has agreed to let Begley repay the $40,552 he owes the city from the 1997 race in installments after each of the next four races.

"I would hope that Tom would repay the city the money outstanding on previous debts," council member Virginia Littrell said. "Any time this race is discussed, that money is discussed."

Begley has had city officials' cooperation even though the St. Petersburg Times reported in 1991 that he was prosecuted in 1987 on cocaine smuggling charges. He was accused of smuggling $200,000 worth of cocaine from California into Washington state.

An appellate judge dismissed the case, ruling that a wiretap used against Begley was illegal.

Begley said he never smuggled drugs, "and there was no finding that I did, either." Asked Friday why he told a federal judge in 1987 that he did it "in a moment of greed," Begley said the judge "made me say that."

Littrell said that without a conviction, an incident so long ago doesn't worry her. City Council member Bill Foster was surprised to learn of it.

"I'm speechless," he said. "There's no way to respond to that. I wish I hadn't heard that, but it doesn't change the relationship that we have now."

Originally from Cleveland, Begley grew up loving cars. His father drove him around in a pink 1955 Cadillac El Dorado and a succession of sportier cars.

Today, Begley drives a 1984 Volkswagen GTI, "one of the classic pocket rockets," he said. "It's fast enough for me, doesn't get me into trouble."

Maybe it's a bit too fast: He has received 15 speeding tickets in the past seven years.

"Note that I had zero accidents," he said.

It's the only legal trouble he has had since the cocaine charges, he said.

"In anybody's life, you have to look at who they surround themselves with and how they carry themselves," he said.

Begley plans to have the rejection letter from Pook framed.

Thomas F. Begley

Age: 57

Profession: General manager for the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

Education: Bachelor in business administration, University of Notre Dame, 1966; law degree from Cleveland State College of Law, 1973

Family: Wife of 30 years, Shirley Spear Begley. No children.

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