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Grand Prix

Fun key among big expectations

By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 24, 2003


ST. PETERSBURG -- Before you decide what the Grand Prix was, it is necessary to first establish what it was not.

It was not LeMans. It was not Daytona, and it was not Indy, and it was not the chase scene from Charlie's Angels. It did not cure hunger, and it did not bring world peace.

In the end, it was only this:

Fun.

For now, isn't that enough?

Good crowd, good weather, good race. Isn't that what they call the triple crown? People came out, some 30,000-35,000 of them, and they lay on the grass, and they wandered the grounds, and they drank a little beer. Every now and then, someone spotted a race car.

Was it the lead highlight on SportsCenter? No.

Was it a great way to grin through a weekend? Yes.

I'll confess. When I came to the Grand Prix this weekend, I brought my columnist's set of knives with me. I was completely, absolutely prepared to rip this event if it had underwhelmed.

The taste of the sport was strange, after all. The drivers were unfamiliar, the history of racing through St. Petersburg was too spotty, and the buzz was undetectable. Mostly, it just didn't feel like a match. Nothing against the sport, and nothing against the city, but would you have fixed the two up?

On the other hand, I've been wrong before. Maybe you remember a time or two.

As it turns out, the weekend was a blast. It worked on every level, as a race, as an attraction, as a message from the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce.

Don't underestimate that last part. It is part of St. Petersburg's character, bless our insecure little souls, that we cannot stand for anyone to use the adjective "sleepy" when talking about us. We have elected officials who tend to run screaming down the street whenever a telecast drops the word Bay from Tampa Bay, remember?

And so St. Petersburg, through the years, has sought to hitch its proud name to a sporting event or two. Sometimes, that's backfired. This time, with the sun and the sparkling water, it was an invitation. If CART really is big in Europe, they're gonna love this in Luxembourg.

Ah, but was it enough?

For the future of the event, and perhaps for the future of CART, which needs some of its American cities to become footholds, this is the crucial question.

Look, if CART officials were content to make this an interesting little event in an interesting little city, then this would do just fine. You could think of it like Cirque de Soleil. Look, hon. The cars are in town this weekend.

The thing is, CART doesn't look at this as a little event or a little race. Not according to Chris Pook, CART president and CEO, who sees this becoming a signature event.

"It's going to be a big, big event," Pook said. "There's no doubt in my mind. I've been around this business for almost 30 years. You get used to the touch, feel and smell of it. You get to know right away. In five to seven years, this could go past Long Beach. It's going to be one of those classic events of the early spring, the kind of event people mark on the calendar."

Too much ambition can be a dangerous thing in sports. The world seems to devour nice little events that don't seem to know their place, whose expectations rise too quickly.

The cautious among us see a ceiling to how popular CART can be here in the middle of NASCAR country. Let's face it. You didn't know the names, and I didn't know the names, and I'm not sure the guy in this car knew the name of the guy in that car. As long as CART drivers keep jumping to Formula One, that's going to be a problem. (One possible solution: Change the names so every car contains an Earnhardt or a Stewart, a Gordon or a Wallace, etc.)

For the record, driver Ryan Hunter-Reay would object to that joke. The other day, I asked Hunter-Reay the different between CART and NASCAR drivers.

"James Bond drives these cars," Hunter-Reay said. "Hulk Hogan drives NASCAR."

Another idea for the Grand Prix?

Free pace-car rides for everyone.

Seriously, this would bring them in. I found myself strapped into one of those on Friday, which can be handy if you, say, have lunch at the Vinoy and need to get to Bern's for dessert. Trust me. You have never seen the Hilton until you are headed toward the lobby at 110 mph.

The pace-car driver was Linda Popst, a nice person who kept talking calmly as we hurtled down the stretch, faster than common sense, faster than terror. The way she drove, I wondered: Has a pace car ever won one of these races?

So we lurched left, and lurched right, and when we slowed to turn, the gravitational pull felt as if someone had reached into my chest and flipped my stomach over. The entire time, I had the console in a death grip with my left had. Later, I thought: It's a convertible, you moron! Do you think that if you crash, you're going to be okay because you were gripping the console?

At one point, she said, "Do you know your cell phone is ringing?"

And I said. "I'll ... get ... it ... later."

Later, I mentioned this to Paul Newman. "I talked to everyone I know in heaven," I said.

And he said, in that raspy voice of his, "I'll get you in a car with (Mario) Andretti. You'll talk to everyone you know in hell."

The point is this: There are some grins to be had at the track.

Pook imagines yachts in the harbor. He imagines more grandstands, more fans, more days where the sun kicks off the water and fans lie on the grass and listen as the roar comes near.

"The sky is the limit," Pook said. "The feel is going to be very Monte Carlo. Very Monte Carlo."

Maybe. For now, however, those who went to the race had fun.

That's enough.

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