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On course for success

With just six months before St. Petersburg's CART event, city officials visit Denver to see what works and what doesn't.

By BRYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 2, 2002


With just six months before St. Petersburg's CART event, city officials visit Denver to see what works and what doesn't.

DENVER -- It was a city leader's dream, one St. Petersburg officials expect to live in less than six months: fast cars and tens of thousands of visitors on downtown streets, all shown on television with gorgeous natural scenery in the background.

On Sunday, Bruno Junqueira won the inaugural Shell Grand Prix of Denver, the centerpiece of a three-day-and-night party.

The same promoter will bring the familiar open-wheel cars -- and, St. Petersburg officials hope, the crowds -- to a downtown waterfront course to kick off the CART racing league's season Feb. 23 with the inaugural Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

"Every time somebody talks about our race, they say St. Pete," City Council member John Bryan said, beaming. "I haven't heard Tampa or Tampa Bay mentioned one time."

Bryan and a half-dozen St. Petersburg officials mixed with the Denver crowd over the weekend, looking for insights on everything from fire safety to how to use the race to polish a city's image.

They headed home after learning a few lessons about what can go wrong. For instance, race fans piled up waiting for shuttle buses at baseball stadium Coors Field, where parking was $5 instead of $20. And people waited 10 to 30 minutes in the sun to cross pedestrian bridges over the racetrack to the festival.

"All the bridges are too narrow, and that's a real bottleneck," said Leila Vale, an engineer from Boulder.

The St. Petersburg delegation left confident that race organizers know what they're doing and that the St. Petersburg race will go well. Traffic flowed well and fans stayed happy.

"Our heat exhaustion is way down from what we expected," Denver police Chief Gerald Whitman said. "It's been smooth."

Race fans and curious residents needed sunscreen, a hat and earplugs to handle the pale Western sun and the whine of racing engines. They walked around sipping bottles of Coors, played racing simulator games, watched freestyle BMX bicyclists on a half-pipe and bought bushels of hats and T-shirts.

In the evenings, they spilled into downtown bars, restaurants and hotels. They packed a Saturday night concert by the band Train.

"I think it's great for the city," said Gary Bauerle, a radiologist from Greeley. "I hope they keep having it here."

It was expensive, with $20 parking and sports-venue prices for concessions, but "you don't come to an event like this to save money," he said.

Denver and St. Petersburg have awakened desolate downtowns by spending millions of public dollars over the past 20 years. Both are struggling with tight city budgets and the economic downturn since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

It has perhaps been worse in Denver, where major employer Qwest Communications and many dot-com companies have been beaten up by the Internet bust.

Promoter Dover Motorsports projects each race will pump abut $30-million into the local economy.

"People are very, very excited about this," Denver City Council member Ed Thomas said. "We've got a $15-million budget shortfall. We're going to have to cut again. To have this gift during this tough economic time, I say, God bless CART."

Dover gave the St. Petersburg visitors special treatment in Denver. They wore all-areas credentials designating them "special guests." And Dover treated them to laps around the track in pace cars and to prime seats in its Pit Row suite.

The suite offered a great view of Pit Row, and of one of the race's biggest glitches. A row of decorative trees in the median of Auraria Parkway obstructed the view of the parallel straightaway.

That meant people who paid $675 for a seat there got an open bar and a tasty buffet, but a worse view of full-speed racing than fans who paid $105 for a good three-day grandstand seat. Even the best grandstand seat has a view of only one-fifth of the race course, but giant television screens help.

Denver officials refused to let the trees be cut down or moved, though the promoter offered to buy three new trees for each one lost. Crews wrapped the trees with ropes to squeeze in their branches. It was a good lesson for the St. Petersburg delegation.

"They know what's happening," Bryan said of Dover. "The biggest thing I fear is that we'll start trying to tell them how to run their event."

The Denver and St. Petersburg courses are at the edge of their downtowns to minimize disruptions to traffic. But Denver's course has far fewer homes within earshot.

The few nearby residents of lofts in the trendy LoDo neighborhood are younger on average than St. Petersburg's Bayfront Tower residents. Many hosted race parties.

"It's an event," said Colleen E. Rideout, an area manager for Wells Fargo Mortgage who could see the race course from her balcony. "It's like the Fourth of July. There are fireworks, and they are popping, but it's part of the fun."

Dover declined to say how many people attended or how much it spent to hold the event. But the grandstands were full late Saturday and on Sunday.

Several details hinted that Dover is willing to spend extra money for quality. White fabric covered the scaffolding beneath the temporary luxury suites. L-shaped steel reinforced each edge of the concrete safety barriers that lined the track. The tires bolted together in stacks at sharp corners in the race course were new.

And a professional sign-making company was hired to set up a temporary shop in the basement of the basketball arena Pepsi Center to prevent the sort of frustration guests felt recently at St. Petersburg's Sail America festival.

"Thirty percent of your signage is done after you see where the crowds are going to go," Qube Visual president Art Wollenweber said. "They can say, 'Oh my God, the crowd doesn't realize they need to do this.' They radio us, and we can turn out a sign in 10 minutes."

Bryan said even the portable toilets were better than he's used to.

"These are nice units," he said. "I could close the door and sit down without banging my knees."

Traffic in downtown Denver was heavy during race weekend, but much of it was for other big events, including the Colorado-Colorado State football game Saturday and the Taste of Colorado festival in a different section of downtown.

Still, metro Denver residents had an easy way to get to the race that their Tampa Bay counterparts won't: light rail.

"We took it here from downtown Littleton," said Heather Smith, an ultrasound technician who rested under a tent with her daughter and snacked Saturday. "You ride right past all the traffic, and you don't have to deal with the parking."

In many ways, the race is like a traveling circus. Everything is shipped in, set up, and then broken down to head for the next city.

The CART racing league brings an emergency medical center for its drivers and crew members. The two physicians and an emergency nurse wait in a four-bed doctor's office in a semitrailer, ready to handle everything from a blister on someone's ankle to a traumatic neck injury from a racing accident.

"In a place like St. Petersburg where we are close to a trauma center, this unit does not have as much importance," he said. "But we'll still see anywhere from 60 to 80 patients over the weekend."

St. Petersburg Deputy Fire Marshal Terry Barber was impressed to see steel pipe run behind Pit Row, with fire hoses every several yards. CART cars run on methanol, which is alcohol, not gasoline. Water extinguishes methanol fires.

"All the safety precautions are in place," he said.

Denver's Pepsi Center, an arena comparable to Tampa's Ice Palace, was central to the event. Its modern locker rooms under the bleachers served as press rooms and temporary offices for race organizers. Fans came inside to cool off and buy snacks at the concession stands. It looked nice on television.

In St. Petersburg, the Bayfront Center will sit at the center of the race course and serve the same purpose. But the 40-year-old arena is much smaller, leaks and lacks good restrooms and dressing rooms.

While the Pepsi Center had ice on the arena floor for snow-tire demonstrations and public skating, Bayfront operations manager Beth Herenden said its arena floor will be needed for other things.

"It's interesting to be here and see what their needs are and try to fit it into our space, which is somewhat smaller," Herenden said.

What things cost

Here are prices vendors were charging for popular items at the Shell Grand Prix of Denver:

Nearby parking: $15-$20

Remote parking with free shuttle: $5

Bottled water: $2.75

Soda: $3.50

Beer: $5.50

CART T-shirt: $20-$22

CART cap: $24

Earplugs: $2

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