St. Petersburg's hopes depend heavily on the IRL and Champ Car.
By BRANT JAMES
Published August 5, 2004
The future of open-wheel racing in North America could intersect at a St. Petersburg street corner in the next few weeks.
It is unclear in which direction one of the largest metropolitan areas in the nation without a race will turn. And whether that turn will lead St. Petersburg toward viability as a racing market or as the site of yet another failed sports venture.
Much depends on the two open-wheel racing circuits - Champ Car and the Indy Racing League - that have shown interest in St. Petersburg in the past few years. In adding two road courses for 2005 and seeking two street courses, the IRL is expanding beyond its oval-racing heritage and co-opting what makes the former CART series different. Though financially strong with better sponsor support and television exposure, the IRL was worried enough about its rival to submit a $12.5-million bid in the bankruptcy hearing that awarded CART's assets to current owners Gerald Forsythe, Kevin Kalkhoven and Paul Gentilozzi. The group won the case with a bid of $3.2-million because the presiding judge felt it better served creditors.
Industry analysts see the IRL's current tack capable of squeezing Champ Car out of business slowly after failing with a quick strike in court.
"This'll be the end of Champ Car," said Dennis McAlpine, a stock analyst who tracked the company when it was publicly traded. "Champ Car loses its distinction."
If an as-yet-unnamed promoter can broker a deal between the IRL and the city of St. Petersburg, the sanctioning body of the Indianapolis 500 could stage its first street race here by April. A deal must be completed within a few weeks to get the city on the 2005 schedule, IRL spokesman Fred Nation said.
If the IRL deal collapses, Champ Car, which staged the last Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in February 2003, might reconsider negotiating to return next season. Champ Car decided last weekend to halt negotiations when it became unhappy with the city's interest level, perhaps because discussions with the IRL were intensifying. Champ Car also had halted negotiations with Portland, Ore., officials when a potential deal was discussed between the IRL and first-time race promoter Peter Jacobsen Promotions. Champ Car is set to restart discussions there now that talks with the IRL have ended.
The situation is tenuous for St. Petersburg no matter the resolution of the latest development. All three options - racing with the IRL, Champ Car or not hosting a race at all next season - could still mean there is no racing in this market in the longer term. If the city hosts a Champ Car event and the league folds, many established venues, including the Indy 500 of street racing - the Long Beach Grand Prix - would be available for the IRL to consume. St. Petersburg could be squeezed off the schedule.
"If an opportunity to race (in Long Beach, Calif.) was presented to us, I think we'd certainly have to take a look at adding it to our schedule," competition director Brian Barnhart said.
Even if St. Petersburg became an IRL venue, it could be dropped for a better site if Champ Car goes bust, though IRL senior vice president of business affairs Ken Ungar said the league hopes to "establish long-term relationships" with its markets.
"It's a very complicated process as we look at markets," he said. "We look at the venues themselves and the combination on our schedule, both in terms of geography and in terms of climate where it fits on our schedule."
Failing to race any series next season would leave St. Petersburg without a race for two full years and likely with a damaged image.
"It's pretty clear that it's going to take an investment to get that race where it needs to be," Champ Car president Dick Eidswick said.
But to both sides, St. Petersburg symbolizes an untapped, warm-weather market perfect for early-season racing. That makes it desirable.
Though both the IRL and Champ Car officials have said an eventual merger best serves North American open-wheel racing, the sides have resisted recent overtures by IRL team owner and former CART board member Roger Penske to begin the process. Each side would bargain from positions of strength and weakness. The IRL has greater resources and higher-profile drivers; Champ Car has generated greater crowds - especially in Canada and Mexico - and the Long Beach race. Car count problems appear to be affecting both series.
Those within Champ Car are confident the series will be able to survive at least three years given that its wealthy owners are also team-owners and therefore deeply invested in its survival.
"I think the new owners are committed to making this work for at least three years," said Tampa resident Sebastien Bourdais, who is Champ Car's points leader. "They have obviously put a lot of time and a lot of money into this and they want to see it work."
Either way, a corner is likely to be turned in St. Petersburg.