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New race date set, but not in stone

If Open Wheel buys CART, the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg would be back on May 16. But an IRL bid could scuttle the race.

BRANT JAMES
Published January 17, 2004

Organizers of the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg have targeted May 16 as the new date for the race through downtown streets. But the route of the second-year event first will have to pass through a courtroom, where Championship Auto Racing Team's bankruptcy case is to be settled and its assets disbursed Jan.28.

A group of CART team owners has proposed to buy most of the assets of the faltering open-wheel series and planned to move the date of its Las Vegas race to fit St. Petersburg into a preferable spring time frame, but late interest in the sale by the rival Indy Racing League could end all those plans.

Postponed from its Feb.22 date when CART headed for bankruptcy, the Grand Prix was saved when Open Wheel Racing Series proposed a purchase of CART's assets and liabilities with the intention of running the series this year.

Then came a wrinkle. CART's bankruptcy proceedings originally were seen as a formality in which Open Wheel, comprised of former CART team owners Gerald Forsythe, Kevin Kalkhoven and Paul Gentilozzi, would assume control and race as Champ Car World Series. Then representatives of the rival open-wheel series, Indy Racing League, entered into an agreement to view the assets with an option to bid.

"I doubt that the IRL would put in a bid in order to continue the series," Kalkhoven said in a release. "In my opinion, their desire would be to kill it."

IRL vice president Fred Nation told the Indianapolis Star that "CART's already out of business."

"The assets of a bankrupt CART are for sale," he said. "And since we're looking to go road racing in the next few years, it's a chance for us to buy certain things we're going to have to buy anyway."

Open Wheel long has expressed a desire to merge with the IRL. These proceedings could be a sign that the IRL has no such intentions, said Dennis McAlpine, an analyst who covers CART and race promoter Dover Motorsports.

"There is nothing to be gained by merging," he said. "From their point of (view), they can push up the price Open Wheel has to pay and sit back and wait for it to collapse and pick up the pieces."

Bids must be submitted by Friday to U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Frank Otte. A sales hearing will be held Jan.28.

"We should be able to make an announcement on the 29th," Grand Prix general manager Tim Ramsberger said. "We remain excited and optimistic about the potential of this race."

If Open Wheel emerges with the assets it needs, St. Petersburg Grand Prix officials will have less than four months to secure sponsorship deals, including a title sponsor, and assume the logistical void left when Dover Motorsports relinquished rights to the race in December. Ramsberger said he has been contacted by sponsors of the now-defunct Grand Prix Americas CART race in Miami and said the Renaissance Vinoy Resort and Golf Club will remain a sponsor.

"We can't sign any contracts with sponsors right now," Ramsberger said. "But we have to make sure they are up to date so we can activate quickly, very quickly."

The IRL might not be able to buy Open Wheel into oblivion, as Otte is charged with accepting the bid that best serves the interest of CART's shareholders, not the highest.

Hidden by confidentiality agreements is whether the rights to stage the race through downtown streets is one of the assets up for bid. CART took possession of those rights when Dover Motorsports, citing timetable problems, chose to withdraw. The IRL long has expressed a wish to race on a few street courses by 2005, and St. Petersburg was widely liked by drivers and teams in its inaugural running last February. Don't expect to see IRL star Sam Hornish Jr. careening down Beach Drive this spring, however. Whoever controls the rights to the St. Petersburg market is contractually obligated to field a race this calendar year or relinquish those rights, and the IRL still needs time to complete its chassis program for street courses.

The rights to the jewel of CART's schedule, the Grand Prix of Long Beach, still are owned by Dover Motorsports, as is another road race in Denver. Dover Motorsports CEO Denis McGlynn said in December he has had cursory discussions with IRL president Tony George. McGlynn did not return calls Thursday.

Champ Car's season is scheduled to begin April 18 at Long Beach and a sanctioning fee of about $2.1-million would be due to the governing body 90 days prior under standard contracts. But there will be no governing body for another two weeks until bankruptcy hearings end, leaving Long Beach in a tighter crunch than St. Petersburg.

"(Open Wheel) needs to fish or cut bait very quickly," McAlpine said. "We're getting to a little confluence here."

And the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is left bobbing in it.

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