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Begley's determination wins over CART

The promoter initially was turned down. ''We're not interested in your market,'' he heard.

By BRUCE LOWITT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 19, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- Tom Begley just wouldn't let go. Indifference, rejections, debt, none of it mattered -- only that, as far as he was concerned, St. Petersburg was going to have a world-class grand prix along its travel-poster waterfront.

"I'm pretty pig-headed and stubborn," he said. "I'm Irish and I'm determined."

After a 12-year quest, the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is approaching the starting line.

In 1991, Begley bought for less than $50,000 the assets of a waterfront grand prix that had gone bankrupt the year before. Part of the problem was that there was another car race, the Tampa World Challenge, at the Florida State Fairgrounds. The area couldn't support both.

Begley began working to revive the race and, in 1996, staged a Trans-Am race around Tropicana Field, then called the ThunderDome. The group backing it lost more than $500,000. The 1997 race broke even, Begley ended up owing the city $40,522, the race's title sponsor withdrew and that ended its brief run.

Begley turned his attention to Chris Pook, then president of the Long Beach Grand Prix. Pook ignored Begley. "It's very difficult rebirthing a race," Pook said recently, reflecting on his thoughts nearly two years ago.

A turning point came in 2001, when Championship Auto Racing Teams dropped its Homestead-Miami Speedway race. There would be no open-wheel presence in the southeastern United States. CART began examining Boston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Denver and San Francisco as potential street-race cities.

"None of them was St. Petersburg-Tampa," Begley said. "I sent the demographic information about our market to Chris. I still have the letter, June 30 (2001), to me from Chris. He said he'd talked to his associates in Troy, Mich., CART's headquarters then, and Dover, Del. (where the company that now owns the Long Beach race is based). He said, 'We're not interested in your market.' I thought, 'That's crazy.' "

Begley called people he knew who knew Pook and asked them to intercede on his behalf. In August 2001, Pook agreed to visit St. Petersburg.

As he stood with Begley and Mayor Rick Baker on the 20th-story balcony of the Bank of America building, gazing toward Tampa Bay, Pook told them the waterfront near the Bayfront Center would be perfect for a world-class, open-wheel street race.

Still, two major steps remained. The city council had to approve the race and CART had to sanction it.

As Baker prepared to seek the council's approval, he sought assurance from Pook. Baker had heard CART could be difficult to deal with and he feared it might not award St. Petersburg a race.

Pook was in confidential negotiations to take over as CART president and CEO and managed to satisfy the mayor without revealing the negotiations. Baker recalled him saying, "He felt the head of CART was going to sanction this race."

On Nov. 29, 2001, the council gave the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach the preliminary permission it needed to seek sanctioning from CART.

Shortly thereafter, Pook, a British-born entrepreneur, was running CART and St. Petersburg had its race. A few weeks later CART made it official. Dover Motorsports has committed to five races in St. Petersburg, with additional four- and three-year options.

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