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Race gets good marks, despite low attendance

While turnout was not as expected, officials are pleased with the first Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and look to upgrade.

By TOM ZUCCO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2003

The cars on First Street and Bayshore Drive didn't have numbers on them Monday, and they moved more slowly and much more quietly.

Instead of race fans, work crews were out early, rolling up fences and unhooking signs.

The circuit for last weekend's inaugural Grand Prix of St. Petersburg wasn't built in a day.

It was built in 47 days. It will be gone in 20.

No small feat considering the 1.8-mile, 14-turn waterfront course required more than 14-million tons of concrete block barricades, nearly 20,000 feet of fencing, and 14,000 tires wired together to minimize crash damage.

With the cleanup under way, city leaders and racing officials already were turning their attention to next year.

In the next few weeks, officials from CART, the race's sanctioning body, and from the race's promoter, Dover Motorsports Inc., will meet with city officials to review this year's race and plan for the next.

"I had my fingers crossed because of the economy and some underattended events we've had in the past, but this . . . this was perfect," said City Council member John Bryan, who attended Denver's inaugural CART race last fall.

"They'll probably hate me in Denver for saying this," Bryan said, "but I walked all over both tracks every day, and I'd put our first race ahead of theirs."

Tom Begley, GPSP general manager, initially said he expected to draw a crowd approaching 100,000, but later said what was important was whether fans liked what they saw.

"And no one I talked to said they didn't," Begley said. "It was nothing but fun. That's what we were aiming for. And that's what we got."

City officials said the race, which drew an estimated three-day total of 50,000 fans, including 30,000-35,000 on Sunday, came off with only a minor flaws.

Some residents charged as much as $30 to park on Sunday, which was only $5 less than the cost of a general admission ticket. And five people were arrested Sunday for ticket scalping.

In addition, there were a few complaints about the noise, and several restaurant owners said they had smaller crowds than anticipated.

On a larger scale, Championship Auto Racing Teams president and CEO Chris Pook suggested the city consider adding one more major hotel.

"But it depends on what kind of hotel you get," replied Mayor Rick Baker, who spent early Monday delivering handwritten thank you notes to the winners of Sundays races. "The Vinoy (Resort) is a destination resort hotel. They're not waiting for people to come to the city. They bring people to the city.

"And the Hampton Inn & Suites just opened with 100 rooms, and the bed and breakfasts are all doing well.

"Remember, too, that if you're staying in New York City it's not uncommon to have to take 15 or 20 minutes to get where you need to go. Here, the Tradewinds, the Don CeSar and the other beach hotels are the same 15-20 minutes away."

Is there a demand for another major hotel in St. Petersburg?

"I don't know," Baker answered. "It's not critical in terms of the race coming here. But it's certainly something the race can take advantage of.

"The whole thing is a balance. We are as committed to our neighborhoods and Midtown as we are to downtown."

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