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Motorsports

IRL race gets green light

An announcement that St. Petersburg again will host open-wheel racing is expected Thursday.

By BRANT JAMES and CARRIE JOHNSON
Published September 1, 2004

The race that couldn't live, but wouldn't die, is getting another life.

The Indy Racing League and St. Petersburg city officials will announce Thursday the final details of an agreement to stage an open-wheel race through downtown streets April 3.

An announcement is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. on the Bayfront Center plaza with IRL president Tony George and driver Dario Franchitti among the scheduled participants.

The Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will be promoted by a group led by former Championship Auto Racing Teams team-owner Barry Green, an adviser for Andretti Green Racing since selling his interests to Michael Andretti and two other parties in 2002.

The now-defunct CART staged a street race in St. Petersburg in February of 2003. The market, however, was dark this year because of scheduling problems due to financial instability. CART ultimately went through bankruptcy court and re-emerged as Champ Car. Discussions to run a Champ Car race here in 2005 broke off and IRL officials, seeking to expand beyond their league's traditional oval schedule, began talks with the city.

"Champ Car bailed out," City Council chairman Bill Foster said. "We were ready to hold another race and they decided not to have one here."

The inclusion of St. Petersburg will serve several needs for the IRL. It will help fill a six-week early season void between races in Phoenix and Japan, and more important do so with an attractive warm weather venue.

"The event Champ Car had (in St. Petersburg) was a good event," IRL spokesman Fred Nation said. "We need more warm weather facilities - and not in July - earlier dates."

The IRL, which contested its 100th race Saturday at Nazareth Speedway in Pennsylvania, has established itself as the stronger of North America's two open-wheel series since splitting from CART in 1996. Sanctioning the Indianapolis 500 helps bolster that image and the league wields more high-powered sponsors and more high-profile drivers. Champ Car, however, has maintained a stronger footing in Canada and Mexico with its road/street racing and boasts greater attendance. Al Larsen, Andretti Green Racing director of public relations, was in St. Petersburg on Tuesday. He would not confirm his team's involvement as promoter, but expressed confidence in the market.

"As part of Andretti Green, we consider ourselves part of the IRL and anything the league will involve itself in that will grow the league we will get behind it for sure," he said. "Talk of a race in St. Pete was very exciting to us."

The IRL opens its 2005 season March 6 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Nation said adding another race in Florida will enhance both markets. "It's a separate market from our other Florida market," he said. "Not too greatly in competition with one another for fans. It's an attractive venue for our sponsors and our partners."

American Honda Motor Co. manager of motorsports public relations P.E. McHale, a former St. Petersburg resident, called his company and Tampa Bay "a good fit" in terms of size and marketing potential. Foster said he couldn't discuss the negotiations because the IRL asked the city to abide by a confidentiality agreement.

"But I'm reading what you're reading and apparently the people in Indianapolis are excited about it," Foster said. "Because they're talking about something we can't talk about right now."

Since the IRL first announced its interest in holding a race in St. Petersburg, City Hall has been inundated with e-mails from race fans. About half the letters are from IRL fans applauding the move. The others are from Champ Car supporters, who say they would boycott an IRL event.

St. Petersburg's race would be the IRL's first non-oval event. Road course events Aug. 28 at Sonoma, Calif., and Sept. 25 at Watkins Glen, N.Y., already had been added to what is now a 17-race schedule when it was announced weeks ago.

The 1.086-mile, 14-turn course here was universally liked by drivers during the Champ Car event. That CART paid for its installation and the city gained most of the needed safety equipment in a settlement with former promoter Dover Motorsports made it cheaper and more attractive to the IRL and the new promoters.

[Last modified September 1, 2004, 01:10:40]


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