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Grand Prix has work left to do

Organizers still seek sponsors, entertainment for next month's race.

By BRUCE LOWITT, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 8, 2003

TAMPA -- Figuratively speaking, the St. Petersburg Grand Prix is going through the last few twists and turns and heading into the homestretch with a variety of issues yet to be decided -- including who's going to be driving CART's Champ cars Feb. 21-23.

Other loose ends with only about six weeks remaining:

-- Will there be a title sponsor?

-- What times will the practices and races be?

-- Who will provide entertainment to create what organizers hope will be a festival-like atmosphere that draws more than just hard-core race fans?

Many of these issues must be decided in the next two to three weeks, before a promotional event Feb. 2-3 that includes a demonstration lap on the waterfront course, a pit crew competition and opportunities for fans to see the cars and transporters up close.

Race general manager Tom Begley is confident it all will work out.

"It's just part of the loose ends that are floating around," he said. "Every day we try to nail one down."

As for drivers, some of the lineup is falling into place. CART will hold spring testing Feb. 4-5 at Sebring after the promotional appearance for the Grand Prix. Two-time 2002 winners Patrick Carpentier (Cleveland and Mid-Ohio) and Bruno Junqueira (Japan and Denver); Adrian Fernandez, the runner-up at Milwaukee; and Paul Tracy, who won Milwaukee but was remembered more for finishing second to Helio Castroneves in the Indianapolis 500, are expected in the field. CART also is touting up-and-coming racers and wooing drivers from other series.

"I can't say names," Begley said, "but I don't think you need to worry about the driver lineup here."

Dover Motorsports, which is promoting the race, is seeking a title sponsor, but spokesman John Dunlap said if one is not found the company would absorb any losses.

"The best scenario would be two or three (title sponsors)," Begley said "We're okay without one. We have a broad base of sponsors (including the Times)."

Dover generally uses concerts and other activities to broaden the appeal of its events. Last year the Goo Goo Dolls appeared at Long Beach and Train played at Denver, but organizers still are seeking a headline event for St. Petersburg.

Boris Said, who won the 2002 Trans-Am championship and is scheduled to run the Feb. 23 Trans-Am race after the CART event, said he has toured the track and likes it. He expects plenty of passing. "It gets pretty boring when it's follow-the-leader and most of the passing is done in the pits," he said.

He said he tried watching racing on television when he was younger but found it boring. Then a friend took him to the Detroit Grand Prix "and I fell in love with it. You've got to experience the excitement, the smells, the noise."

Noise is inescapable near the track. Races in St. Petersburg and elsewhere have drawn complaints from residents and hotel guests. For many years at Long Beach, and last year at Denver, organizers offered day trips to noise-challenged residents. Long Beach had a couple of dozen takers in 2002 and Denver none.

There are no such plans for this one, Begley said, because no residents are inside the race course as they were in other cities. "If (people) legitimately have a problem with us, we'll give them earplugs," he said. "It's the best we can do. What else can we do? We can't muffle the cars."

DAYTONA TESTING: Mike Skinner, driver of the No. 4 Pontiac, was the fastest on the first day of Winston Cup testing at Daytona International Speedway. Skinner ran 182.767 mph in the afternoon session. Defending champion Tony Stewart had the second-best lap at 182.020. ... R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. -- sponsor of the Winston Cup series -- will not continue the No Bull 5 bonus program that awarded a $1-million prize to a driver and a fan for selected races.

IRL: The Indy Racing League regained control of the IndyCar name from CART and changed the name of its 16-race series to the IndyCar Series to emphasize its association with the Indianapolis 500.

-- Information from Times wires was used in this report.

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