President Tony George is convinced his organization scored a major coup by adding a nonoval race in St. Petersburg to its schedule.
By BRANT JAMES
Published September 4, 2004
ST. PETERSBURG - Tony George stood atop the steps of the Bayfront Center, grinning as he thumbed through a message on his BlackBerry.
A wireless self-congratulation from the future?
"Tony: U were right. St. Pete Grand Prix huge success. Mission accomplished. :)Tony/04/03/2005." Though the president of the Indy Racing League is not capable of such precognitive vision (his wireless plan doesn't cover that anyway), he seemed supremely confident on Thursday that the IRL's decision to race in St. Petersburg for the next three years would increase its position in North American open-wheel racing.
In St. Petersburg, the IRL has its first nonoval and street course event. Road races at Sonoma, Calif., and Watkins Glen, N.Y., also have been added to its 2005 schedule.
For a series built on the reputation of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and oval racing, it was a leap. But it was all part of the master plan, George said.
"We contemplated running street and oval courses on the schedule from the beginning," said George, who split from the then dominant CART series to form the IRL in 1996. "We just never had the opportunity. We had a few false starts, (but) I think we built support and it has continued over the last five years."
The IRL landing St. Petersburg was a gut shot to Champ Car, the series that emerged from CART's ashes through bankruptcy court under private ownership. CART staged the last Grand Prix here in February 2003. Co-owners Paul Gentilozzi and Kevin Kalkhoven had expressed great interest in returning in 2005. Co-owner Gerald Forsythe never publicly supported the idea, however, and contract talks with the city began to sour in July.
Gentilozzi had long asserted that the IRL would not commit to St. Petersburg. But now that is has, it not only takes away an early season, warm-weather venue, it can work out the logistics of street racing before making a bid to land the plum of all street races, the Grand Prix of Long Beach.
Champ Car's contract with open-wheel racing's second-most recognizable North American event - behind only the IRL's Indy 500 - expires after next season. Jim Michaelian, president of the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach, has asserted his commitment to "running under the Champ Car banner," but acknowledged he would entertain conversation at an appropriate time.
Michaelian will get that call (or text message) eventually.
"Long Beach has a tremendous amount of tradition and success," said Brian Barnhart, the IRL's senior vice president of racing operations. "If that venue were to come available, we would certainly have to look at adding it to the schedule."
Gentilozzi said in February that if the IRL was to procure any traditional Champ Car venues, it would have to do so by "squandering the Hulman family trust" and buying them. But the deal the IRL agreed to with the city was much the same as Champ Car's.
So the IRL got what it hopes is a budding Long Beach for a reasonable price.
"I know they have tremendous potential (in St. Petersburg) because of where it is and what it is," George said. "It's a picturesque city, growing and there's a lot of opportunity here.
"It has many of the same things as Long Beach and southern California has, it's just 28 years behind. (But) it could get to a very important place on the motorsports calendar, based on what I've seen."
George said there is room on the IRL schedule to increase the number of races from the current 17 to as many as 20. League officials anticipate any additions would be road or street courses, but the circuit will remain oval-dominant.
"I don't think you'll ever see us stray from being an oval-based series," Barnhart said. "We are built on the history and heritage of the Indianapolis 500, which is obviously an oval event. We will always remain oval-based. You have to look at virtually every new venue on an individual basis, whether it is good for our teams, for our sponsors, for our manufacturers, the fans, whether it is an oval, street or road course."
For now, the IRL has one it thinks fits every criteria.