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Gearing up for Grand Prix

CART gives St. Petersburg a small taste of things to come.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 4, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- The normally quiet downtown streets were alive Monday with the sounds of squealing tires, a 750-horsepower engine and the staccato bursts of air guns as Championship Auto Racing Teams made a promotional pit stop.


With the inaugural Grand Prix of St. Petersburg less than three weeks away, event organizers gave fans a sneak preview. Driver Bruno Junqueira turned two laps on the 1.78-mile street circuit and his Newman-Haas crew gave a pit-stop demonstration on Central Avenue.

A curious crowd of about 300 included race fans, dog walkers and business men and women.

"It's good to see so many people," said Junqueira, a native of Brazil who lives in Miami. "I hope there will be a lot of people for the race.

"It's a good track. It's fast. It's pretty wide, especially on the main straightaway by the airport. There's going to be some passing, for sure. It's going to be very exciting."

CART opens its season Feb. 21-23 in St. Petersburg.

Junqueira said he expects cars to reach speeds of 170-180 mph on the temporary street circuit's long straightaways, though he did not come close to that in Monday's exhibition laps because he thought it best not to pass the police escort.

"I just did two laps very slow with the police car in front of me," Junqueira said. "He wrote me a ticket because I exceeded the speed limit."

During the pit stop demonstration, team members showed off their speed by changing four tires in less than eight seconds. Unlike NASCAR, which uses hand jacks to change tires two at a time, CART lifts the entire car with an internal, pressurized jack to change four tires at once.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, who grew up within a few miles of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, got in on the act, donning a team shirt and holding the sign board that indicated where Junqueira should stop for service. Baker stood to the side, the sign dangling from a long pole.

"It was very cool," Baker said. "I just learned I'm the lollipop man. That's what they call this job."

With attendance required, all drivers participated in promotional photo shoots around town and a media interview at the Bayfront Center. The teams will spend today through Thursday testing at Sebring International Raceway before returning to St. Petersburg on Feb. 20.

"The course looks good," veteran driver Roberto Moreno said. "A street course always brings a lot of challenges. It looks like there are some fast corners and chicanes. The road is resurfaced and that is very important to us.

"I like the atmosphere of the people here. I think this is a place people will like to come."

MUSICAL LINEUP: Rock band Better Than Ezra will perform Feb. 22. The concert is free to Saturday ticket-holders.

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