Grand Prix returns to face challenges

Despite more sponsorship money than the last St. Petersburg race, the Honda Grand Prix faces an uphill battle to turn a profit.

Published March 1, 2005

Come the first weekend of April, the streets of downtown St. Petersburg will be ringing with the sounds of screaming Indy cars.

The investors responsible for bringing Grand Prix racing back to the city are hoping those dulcet tones will be accompanied by the equally sweet sound of clanging cash registers.

The Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg has already lined up far more corporate sponsorship dollars than the city's last Grand Prix race in 2003, its organizers say. And they're hoping to pull in about 60,000 to 70,000 spectators during three days of events, up from an estimated 50,000 over three days in 2003, according to former Championship Auto Racing Teams team owner Barry Green, who is managing director of the race.

"Our goal is to make this the best street race in this country," Green said Monday during a luncheon with reporters.

But the race faces stiff challenges in trying to turn a profit during its first year. First, there's the several million dollars in costs to set up the race, mostly to transport and install the necessary safety equipment, such as barriers, fencing and pedestrian bridges.

Then there's the poor track record of the previous race organizer, Championship Auto Racing Teams. CART lost money on the 2003 race and later went belly up.

Finally, there's the resentment of racing fans who were alienated by the inability of a different organizer - Open Wheel Racing Series of Indianapolis - to schedule a Grand Prix race in St. Petersburg last year.

Green, who declined to specify how much money he's raised or what his expenses for the 2005 race are, admitted that escalating costs have made Indy racing "a tough business." And he acknowledged that some local racing fans may still be doubting that this year's race will even take place.

But Green said it would be premature to assume that the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will post a loss in its first year. Still, he said he is focused not on this year's returns but on building the event over the long term.

"That doesn't happen overnight," he said. "Honda knows that, my partners know that, Indy car knows that. ... The only reason to invest in this project is to make it bigger than it (will be this year)."

Organizing this year's race, which will be broadcast live on ESPN, is Andretti Green Promotions, which is co-owned by Green and Michael Andretti, a retired Indy race car driver and the son of racing legend Mario Andretti. Andretti Green Promotions has a three-year agreement with the city of St. Petersburg to hold the Grand Prix.

Sponsors will help defray the cost of the race. They include Honda Motor Co. as the title sponsor and associate sponsors such as the Renaissance Vinoy Resort and Golf Club of St. Petersburg, Firestone, 7-Eleven and others, including about half a dozen which will be announced March 9. In addition, 27 suites that can each accommodate 36 people have been sold at $25,000 a pop.

Honda is a leading manufacturer of Indy car engines, including those used by the three racing teams that Green sold in 2002 to a group of investors led by Michael Andretti.

"For us to be on the ground floor of this thing is a great opportunity," said Ed Harris, zone sales manager for Honda Motor in Alpharetta, Ga. "It's a good fit for us."

Green said he is hoping to draw spectators from within "a couple hundred miles" of the Tampa Bay area. To broaden the race's appeal, other events will be held during the same weekend, including air shows put on by stunt planes, a "family fun zone" that will include interactive trailers hosted by Firestone and Sony PlayStation and a concert by a well-known music act that will be revealed on March 9.

"I've been lucky enough to attract great partners and sponsors in the past," Green said. "And I think I've done it here again."

--Louis Hau can be reached at 813 226-3404 or hau@sptimes.com