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Start your engines

As the Grand Prix goes full throttle, St. Petersburg is ready to taste the success Miami and Denver had with the event.

By TOM ZUCCO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 23, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- The city has been down this road before. Twice. And both times, the journey came to a dead end.

First came the St. Petersburg Grand Prix from 1985-90, and then the Florida Grand Prix of St. Petersburg from 1996-97. The first race disappeared because of competition from a similar race in Tampa. The second lost its sponsor.

Now, the city is hosting its third attempt at downtown auto racing, the inaugural Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, which enters its third and final day today.

City officials and business leaders say this event is important to the city, not just to prove St. Petersburg can sustain a major auto race, but to finally bury the image of the city as a place where the only things that move fast are thunderstorms. Similar inaugural races were held last year in Denver and Miami, and leaders in both cities declared the races a success. The events brought in people and money and enhanced each city's image.

Now it's St. Petersburg's turn.

Will the third race be a charm?

Before the rains came Saturday afternoon, the sidewalks along Central Avenue and many other streets close to the waterfront were filled with people sitting at outdoor cafes or shopping.

"You know," Ted Lauck said Saturday as he rang up a sale at Central Cigars, "sometimes you have to roll the dice.

"I get customers in here all the time from Tampa or the beaches or north Pinellas, and they're shocked," he said. "They don't know there's all this going on.

"In the 1950s and '60s and even later, there was nothing for young people, nothing for kids to do but steal beer. Now, we've got parks and restaurants, museums and Baywalk, and the city is so clean.

"The race is like a magnet," Lauck, 63, added as three more customers came in. "I think the city learned from Super Fest and BayFest and the other events that didn't pan out.

"I think they did their homework."

In the case of Denver and Miami, two cities that hosted inaugural CART events last year, that homework came in handy.

The Shell Grand Prix of Denver, Aug. 30 to Sept. 1, cost the city little. But given Denver's history with auto racing, which is similar to St. Petersburg's, the city had no choice but to proceed carefully.

"Part of that goes back to the history of auto racing here," said Kevin Magner, an official from Denver's Public Works Department who planned much of the race. "We had a Grand Prix race in the '90s that went belly up after we put millions into it. So under no circumstances would we do that again. Basically, the Grand Prix took the financial risk.

"We just brought the streets up to city standards -- some concrete and asphalt work. It wasn't a big deal. Other than that, we didn't put anything into it."

Magner also said city officials were impressed by the leadership shown by CART and the race promoter. "They did a fantastic job here," he said. "They got done what they said they'd do, and it was a real pleasure working with them."

In the end, Magner said, "we did this for the (7 1/2 percent) sales taxes. We live on sales taxes here.

"What we saw here were a lot of people spending a lot of money. Our restaurants and hotels were full, and it seemed like everybody had a plastic bag with a race shirt or a mug.

"We have a 12-year contract with them, and we'd like to have them here all 12 years."

When Miami hosted the Grand Prix Americas, October 4-6 along Biscayne Boulevard, it had a slightly different arrangement with promoters. Like the Denver event, race organizers had to pay most of the costs of the race. But the city had a tie-in to ticket sales. It was to receive $2 for every ticket sold.

The three-day attendance for the race was estimated at more than 85,000 people. But a Dec. 31 inter-office memo from the city's director of internal audits alleges that race promoters claimed the total number of tickets sold was 12,037, while the city put the number at 16,205.

Still, Miami city leaders, who signed a five-year contract and loaned race organizers $2-million, are solidly behind the event. City officials say the loan is being repaid on schedule and appears to have been a good investment.

"The mayor was very satisfied," said Kelly Penton, spokesperson for Miami Mayor Manuel Diaz. "I don't recall the exact attendance figures, but we got good media coverage, and a ton of people were downtown to see the race.

"And yes, we fully anticipate them coming back this fall."

St. Petersburg also has a five-year agreement with Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and like Denver, its financial obligations to the race are minimal. The city has to repair and maintain the streets the cars race on, and provide police, fire and EMS service outside the fenced-off race area.

"It's the same thing we would do for any other event in the downtown area," said Mark Winn, the city's chief assistant city attorney, adding that the Grand Prix pays for police, fire and rescue workers inside the race area.

Attendance figures for Friday and Saturday were not released by race organizers, but most estimates put Friday's crowd at 10,000 to 12,000.

"We thought Friday was a really good day," said John Dunlap, director of public relations for the race. "Especially considering there were no races, just practice and qualifying."

Unlike Miami, St. Petersburg has no ties to ticket sales.

"Unless the city has expressly agreed to pay for something, it's assumed to be Grand Prix's responsibility," said city attorney Jackie Kovilaritch. "So there shouldn't be much cost to the city associated with the race other than the street repair and crowd control and safety outside the race area.

"They (Grand Prix) have the lion's share of any liability associated with the race, no matter how you look at it, starting from the set-up to the dismantling. They are required to have the insurance and indemnify the city if someone gets injured, and returning everything to its pre-race condition."

So the city is not sticking its neck out very far.

"And that," said Kovilaritch, "is the idea."

What city officials say they will get in return are national and international exposure that could prove invaluable. Exposure rock concerts or tall ships couldn't generate.

"Isn't the race exciting?" Lauck asked a woman who came in looking for a lighter for her husband. She smiled and said it was her first time in St. Petersburg.

She spoke with a British accent.

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