By JEFF HARRINGTON, Times Staff Writer
The sanctioning body finds a buyer, assuring downtown St. Petersburg of its road race in 2004.
A bailout of the troubled Championship Auto Racing Teams circuit is giving a high-octane boost to the first race on CART's 2004 season: the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
CART is the sanctioning body for the St. Petersburg race, not an organizer, financial backer or promoter of the event. For months the organizers of the race have sought to reassure potential sponsors that the second annual event could go on even if CART fizzled.
Nonetheless, race organizers were elated to learn late Wednesday that a group of investors called Open Wheel Racing Series have agreed to buy CART, ensuring that its 2004 season will go on. Open Wheel includes several racing team owners who are big investors in CART.
Grand Prix spokeswoman Lisa Brock said the deal is a plus in sponsor negotiations because it takes off the table the issue of who will sanction St. Petersburg's race.
"I think this will have a direct positive impact" on increasing sponsorships, added Tim Ramsberger, general manager of the Grand Prix, which is slated to wind its way through the streets of downtown in February.
Today, racing is dominated by NASCAR's stock cars. In open-wheel racing, CART has struggled to compete with the more stable Indy Racing League for the support of manufacturers and sponsors. IRL's planned expansion into road courses, which is now CART's domain, will only make it tougher.
Despite CART's uncertain future, Ramsberger said he is anxious to sit down with CART's new management team to talk about charting the St. Petersburg race in 2005 and beyond.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker said he was relieved. Like Ramsberger, he added, "I have remained confident in the race because of the support of (promoter) Dover Motorsports. They really are the key . . . They're the financial backer."
Open Wheel Racing is buying CART for about $8-million, or 56 cents a share. That's far short of the company's recent market value, but the ailing auto racing company said it had little choice. It considered liquidating the company but determined there would be less left for shareholders after paying debts than there would be through Open Wheel's buyout, CART said in a statement.
The deal may take up to three months to close, and some minority shareholders already have vowed to oppose it. Plus, Open Wheel can back out of the purchase without consequences by Sept. 18 if its due diligence turns up any problems.
CART chief financial officer Thomas Carter called the agreement "very, very good news" for the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. "St. Petersburg is a very important event for us," he added. "It opens our season."
The inaugural race in St. Petersburg held seven months ago was heralded by local leaders as popular but not profitable. Organizers lost about $1.3-million, with the shortfall blamed in part on the lack of a title sponsor.
Ramsberger plans to announce new sponsorships at the end of the month. Organizers are in talks with some potential title sponsors.
The Grand Prix manager said he has widened the net for potential backers, contacting companies on both sides of the bay and as far away as Sarasota. A slow economy makes the battle for dollars tough.
But Ramsberger said enthusiasm is picking up as news spreads that the race will be nationally televised by CBS.
Word of the CBS telecast "is slowly getting out," he said. "People are realizing this has not only a regional factor to it ... but national and international."
-Jeff Harrington can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813 226-3407.