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    Promoter won't let CART cut engine

    The St. Petersburg Grand Prix will drive ahead despite the financial woes of its sanctioning body.

    By ALICIA CALDWELL, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 8, 2003

    The Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will continue, the race's promoter pledged Wednesday, even if its sanctioning group succumbs to financial difficulties.

    The promise by Mark Rossi, vice president of sales and marketing for Dover Motorsports, came a day after financial reports filed with regulators showed that the race's financially troubled sanctioning body, Championship Auto Racing Teams, suffered substantial first-quarter losses.

    "Absolutely, we would have the race next year," said Rossi, whose company markets and sells tickets to the event. "We have invested millions in that course. We would find another race sanctioning body."

    CART recruits racing teams, gets them to the track and negotiates television coverage of races, which are held on street courses and ovals. Its quarterly report, filed Tuesday with the Securities and exchange Commission, revealed a net loss of nearly $9-million for the quarter ended March 31, up from $1.5-million a year earlier.

    Dover's commitment to continue the St. Petersburg race is backed by the Delaware company's relatively strong financial position.

    But even Rossi acknowledged that "with short notice, it would be difficult" to find another race sanctioning body for the St. Petersburg race. CART's primary rival in open-wheel racing, the Indy Racing League, currently races only on ovals, not street courses. The St. Petersburg race, a new event this year, was held on 1.8 miles of city waterfront streets.

    There's also talk of a different scenario that would directly affect the future of the St. Petersburg race: Formula One, the premiere open-wheel racing series in the world, would buy CART and take it private.

    The Long Beach, Calif., Press-Telegram reported last month, based on anonymous sources, that Bernie Ecclestone, the head of Formula One, is engaged in talks to buy a majority interest in CART. Rather than being reduced to a feeder series for Formula One, the report said, CART would serve as a compatible series. The executive infrastructure of CART seems ripe for such a move. David Clare, who had long been one of Ecclestone's top deputies, joined CART earlier this year as chief operating officer.

    A takeover of CART by Ecclestone probably wouldn't affect the agreement the promoter has with St. Petersburg to hold the race in the city, said Jackie Kovilaritch, an assistant city attorney familiar with the city's deal with race organizers.

    The agreement, signed in February 2002, says that CART, IRL, a successor to either of those sanctioning bodies or one that runs Indy-style cars could conduct the race.

    "If for some reason CART ceases to exist, it wouldn't necessarily require renegotiation of this agreement," Kovilaritch said.

    The initial agreement runs to February 2007, with the City Council having the option to extend it for two more terms, for a total of 12 years. If organizers wanted to race a substantially different type of vehicle, that would have to be approved by City Council members, Kovilaritch said.

    Whatever comes of such possibilities, the people at Dover continue to talk to sponsors for next year's race.

    Ross said race sponsors generally are renewing their commitment for next year's race, but the event still lacks a title sponsor.

    Then there's the challenge of improving turnout. Initially, organizers said they expected a crowd approaching 100,000 for this year's race. But city officials estimated the event's three-day total at 50,000.

    "It's a major priority for us to get a title sponsor," he said. "At the end of the day, our No. 1 priority is to get people out to the race."

    - Alicia Caldwell can be reached at Alicia@sptimes.com or (727)893-8145

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