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Race for the future

St. Petersburg's mayor is hero for a day as fans and Grand Prix officials alike express satisfaction with the inaugural event.

By TOM ZUCCO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 24, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- Mayor Rick Baker knew Sunday would be the money day.

As the inaugural Grand Prix of St. Petersburg unfolded, Friday was foggy and a work day, but still the crowds were good. Saturday brought the threat of rain, but again, the crowds were respectable.

But Sunday would determine whether the city's third try at downtown auto racing would pay off.

Baker got the answer as he made his way in front of the estimated 30,000 to 35,000 people who packed the main grandstands during Sunday's Champ Car race.

From sections all over the stands, people called out his name and thanked him. Fans along the fence shook his hand, offered high-fives, and asked him to pose for pictures.

"It's not for me," Baker said as he made his way out. "It's for the city. These folks are saying, 'This is my town.' Today we hit a home run. No, wait. A grand slam home run."

The only glitches he knew of were some garbage cans that hadn't been emptied.

Even the drivers gushed.

"St. Petersburg, you're awesome," shouted veteran driver Scott Pruett on the victory stand after winning the Trans-Am race, the final event. "Great crowds, great track, great job."

But the people from the race's sanctioning body, Championship Auto Racing Teams, and the race's promoter, Dover Motor Sports Inc., needed to be convinced if the race is to continue.

Chris Pook, CART's president and CEO, sat in an office trailer near the pits as the last race was winding down.

"I'm delighted," he said. "St. Petersburg more than exceeded our expectations, and the future is unlimited."

Pook said the break-even number for attendance was about 50,000 for the three days. "And you're in range," he said.

"There are some glitches we need to get fixed, like the trash cans being emptied and the presentation. Some of the course still looked a tad like a construction site, with bits and pieces lying around.

"And the city could use one more major hotel downtown. But you'll see. This will become a major event. We start planning the next race March 15."

Jim Michaelian, president and CEO of the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach, had been sent by Dover Motor Sports to promote the race. "Until you actually run a race, you never really know," he said. "And what you saw today was laying the foundation for something wonderful. The city and the race have fabulous potential. You could see it on the faces of the people who came.

"We heard all the jokes about the senior discounts and the blue hair. But this will go a long way to dispel that myth.

"No . . . we're committed here. That's not going to take any discussions."

Outside the track, the feeling was mutual.

Minutes before the CART race started, more than three dozen fans waited in line to buy tickets at a booth at First Street and First Avenue S. Inside the fenced course, the crowd cheered when the checkered flag dropped. Many watched a large TV screen even as the cars zipped by several yards away. Others preferred to get as close as they could, standing at the fence along the First Street straightaway.

"The sound coming off these babies, rock and roll, man," said Bill Jeffrey, a 45-year-old St. Petersburg contractor who said his father was a longtime medical director at the track in Sebring. "With the baseball team and everything, this is a great venue. People will complain about noise, (but) I want to see this work."

One of the best views was at the "Bayfront Corporate Rooftop Village," atop the Bayfront Center parking garage. TVs in white tents were largely ignored as spectators stood along the garage's outer wall to watch race cars, sailboats in the bay and an occasional plane taking off.

One airport runway was used for the race course. Overhead, a plane towed a black and yellow banner referring to the controversy over the eventual fate of the airport: "Support Albert Whitted Airport."

"It's a lot different here," said Paul Vegmani, 41, a wholesale florist from Eureka, Calif., who graduated from St. Petersburg High School in 1977. "It's grown like crazy. There are new buildings everywhere."

Vegmani, 41, attended the Daytona 500 last weekend and praised St. Petersburg's race. His only complaint: From atop the Bayfront garage, the public address announcer could not be heard and there was no way to know the race standings without checking a television.

There were other complaints about the noise, about parking costs, and St. Petersburg police made five ticket scalping arrests. Those arrested allegedly had purchased group tickets at a reduced rate and were trying to sell them at a higher rate. They also were trying to sell complimentary tickets. It is illegal to sell tickets for more than $1 over face value.

"One guy tried to sell us two comp tickets for $160," said Sgt. Gary Robbins. "This same group works Magic games in Orlando and Bucs games in Tampa."

But overall, Baker said, the day belonged to St. Petersburg.

"This race was watched by 175-million viewers in 90 countries, and there were nearly 400 press credentials issued," Baker said. "You can't buy that kind of publicity.

"But there's something else. When I was a kid in Indiana I used to sit on my front porch and listen to the cars racing at the Indianapolis Speedway. Yesterday, I sat on my porch again and I could hear the races. I felt like a kid again.

"I don't think I'm the only one who feels that way today."

-- Staff Writer Tim Nickens contributed to this report.

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