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City's hopes ride high when rubber meets road

Barriers and grandstands await the roar of engines and the stamp of feet. But will crowds appear?

By TOM ZUCCO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 16, 2003


ST. PETERSBURG -- If Tom Begley is nervous, he isn't tipping his hand.

With a little more than a week to go before the inaugural Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Begley, the race's general manager, stood by the track and smiled as he watched pace cars pull out onto the asphalt. He carries one cell phone now, not the usual two. And it doesn't ring as often as it did two weeks ago.

The race, which is Friday through Feb. 23 along a 1.78-mile street circuit next to the downtown waterfront, kicks off the Championship Auto Racing Teams 2003 season. There are still lots of little details, Begley said, but the major work is done. Nearly all the barriers and fences are in place, and most of the grandstands are up.

Advance ticket sales are doing well, he said, and major hotels close to the course are at or near capacity.

"Our biggest priority was getting the circuit built," Begley said, "and at this point, we're ahead of schedule."

By Wednesday night, the entire course should be ready.

There's a lot at stake in this race, for Begley and the city, which has failed to see the crowds or good publicity it expected from some recent high-profile events.

The 2001 Super Fest concert -- St. Petersburg's effort to cash in on Super Bowl visitors -- played to a nearly empty park and shut down early. The promoters for the event sent the city a check for $17,539.46. It bounced. Last year, after the Chrysler/Jeep Bay Fest, an unpaid bill of about $15,000 was turned over to the city's collection department.

Also last year, the American Power Boat Association demanded that the city pony up money for that group's offshore races, while still owing $63,000 to the city from the previous year.

And last summer's Americas' Sail 2002, which brought tens of thousands of visitors into downtown, left some people disappointed because of long lines and expensive tickets.

Add to that history the recently elevated terrorist alert, the growing likelihood of war in Iraq, and a stagnant economy at home, and the challenge facing a first-time race grows even steeper.

"I think they're ready," said St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker. "We sent teams to Denver last year to watch their inaugural CART race, and we compare very well.

"There are a lot of things that can affect the race, but all you can do is just move forward and do your best."

Past events, he said, have no bearing on what happens this weekend.

"This race is important, period," Baker said. "We do over 300 events a year along the waterfront. The tall ships, I thought, was a wonderful event. The main criticism was that the lines were too long. If that's the main criticism, then Disney World is a complete failure."

All other variables considered, the success of the race, city officials and organizers say, depends on people.

"You can't have people leaving an inaugural event disappointed or less than positive," Begley said. "We want everybody to feel good about St. Petersburg and want to come back here."

But will those people come?

"I can remember Phil Esposito running around the market saying, 'If I can get you to a hockey game,' " fans would be hooked, Begley said. "And he was right. We're putting a foundation in place this year. We have a 12-year agreement for a purpose -- it takes a long time. Once you get the foundation, you start building it. More people will come. More corporations will show up and decide they want to do it.

"We need to have paid spectators or we don't exist as a business."

Begley said there is a set number of tickets that have to be sold for the event to break even.

"But if I told you what those numbers were," he said, "I wouldn't have a job anymore.

"But we're on track. A lot depends on what happens as we close out this week."

It takes about 250 paid workers and a small army of volunteers several months to configure and prepare the course and to promote the race. St. Petersburg city government has also spent months planning for parking and traffic.

City Council member John Bryan, one of the group who visited Denver, said he's pleased with the progress. Organizers ran into some unexpected expenses because barricading Albert Whitted Airport was more complicated than anticipated, but they haven't complained, he said.

"They've just done the work and paid the bills. Everything is brand-new and first-class. They've done what they said they were going to do," Bryan said.

For the moment, Bryan's concern is not a lack of people. It's too many. "I'm just hoping the restaurants downtown are ready with additional staff for thousands of people, especially Saturday night," he said. "I don't think folks downtown really understand the magnitude of what might happen. I saw it in Denver. Saturday night is going to be big. We may have 10,000 to 15,000 people downtown, and I want our restaurants to be ready."

Some of those restaurants are already bracing for the rush.

"We anticipate it's going to be a madhouse," said Chuck Kott, manager of Midtown Sundries, a 400-seat restaurant a few blocks from the course. "We're going to add extra bartenders and staff and treat it like it's First Night every night.

"My real concern is the parking situation," Kott added. "We just hope they don't try to gouge people, because parking downtown is going to be scarce."

To avoid the noise and the crowds, some residents who live near the course have made plans to stay elsewhere over the weekend. Others don't have a choice.

Standing outside her front door in her furry slippers on a recent morning, Aleksandra Todorovic said she has been to other downtown races and knows how loud they can be. Todorovic and her husband rent a faded gray wood frame house on Second Street S, just a block from the race course. It's one of the few single-family residences in a neighborhood filled with apartment buildings, condos and offices.

"We like it here because it's so quiet," she said. "And yeah, we have nowhere to run next weekend. We tried to find a place to sleep, but we can't."

A 33-year-old native of Bosnia who moved to the United States three years ago, Todorovic said she works in retail sales at BayWalk. And she likes to sleep in on the weekends. "The noise will be horrible," she said. "But I don't really mind it.

"I guess anything that will bring people to downtown St. Pete is good. And it's only for one weekend."

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