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City has had false starts with racing

By Times staff

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 21, 2003

While the local Sunshine Speedway has been an anchor of racing in St. Petersburg, here is a recap on some of the Grand Prix's notable forerunners:

St. Petersburg Grand Prix

YEARS: 1985-90.

CAR TYPE: Trans-Am series.

NOTABLE: Harold J. Kelley was the original event director but left in 1987 to start the Tampa World Challenge race. The competing events did each other in after their 1990 races. . . . The races encircled St. Petersburg's waterfront near the Bayfront Center, creating noise about which many business owners and residents complained. . . . The Sports Car Club of America was the sanctioning body. . . . Willy T. Ribbs led wire-to-wire in winning the inaugural race in 1985. Other winners were Pete Halsmer (1986), Scott Pruett (1987), Walter Roehrl (1988), Irv Hoerr (1989) and Chris Kneifel (1990). . . . Kneifel now is chief steward for the Champ Cars. . . . The 1985 event lost $2.3-million but moved into the black in 1987. . . . Driver Jim Fitzgerald, 65, a teammate of actor/racer Paul Newman, was killed when he crashed in the 1987 race. He was the winningest driver in Sports Car Club of America history.

Florida Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

YEARS: 1996-97.

CAR TYPE: Trans-Am series.

NOTABLE: Tom Begley, one of the lead organizers of the CART race this year, bought the assets of the St. Petersburg Grand Prix in bankruptcy court and resurrected the race. . . . The Sports Car Club of America was the sanctioning body. . . . The course covered 1.6 miles around Tropicana Field, then called the ThunderDome. . . . The 1996 event drew about 76,000 fans over three days. Attendance dropped to 74,000 in '97, though the race-day crowd of 36,000 was bigger than '96. . . . Ron Fellows won the 1996 race, and Tommy Kendall won in '97. . . . After losing title sponsor Kash n' Karry, International Management Group pulled the plug before the 1998 race.

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