City, race officials thinking positive
St. Petersburg hopes this year's race through its streets will become a tradition in time.
By MELANIE AVE
Published March 10, 2005
ST. PETERSBURG - The city's relationship with auto racing can best be called stop and go.
Three attempts at downtown, European-style street racing in the last 20 years have eventually crashed and burned. The last one two years ago lost more than a million dollars.
With the latest race just three weeks away, some fans and local residents wonder if this will finally be the one that sticks around or will it leave quicker than it sped to town and never come back?
"I really would like to have a continuous series here," said Jason Bryant, 38, an airline mechanic who hopes to score pit passes for the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. "It'd be great for the area."
At every turn, city officials and promoter Barry Green insist this year's race through downtown's waterfront, April 1-3, will be different. They repeated it Wednesday as they announced more sponsors.
"We are here to stay," Green said.
City leaders, who signed a three-year agreement for the event, say the main ingredients for success are in place this time: corporate sponsorship, a sanctioning agreement, a knowledgeable promoter and local support.
"There's always the possibility that it's not going to work," said City Council member Jay Lasita. "But I think the stars have finally aligned after numerous efforts."
Admittedly, Green has a tough sell after the city's bumpy auto racing history.
The St. Petersburg Grand Prix roared through downtown streets from 1985-90. The annual race closed up shop after the promoter filed bankruptcy. Then came the Florida Grand Prix of St. Petersburg from 1996-97, which fizzled after the title sponsor pulled out and the promoter fled.
Two years ago, the city landed its first major race: the 2003 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
But again the city's deal with the promoter fell apart after the race sanctioning body, Championship Auto Racing Teams, filed for bankruptcy.
Desperately wanting a street race, Mayor Rick Baker called open-wheel racing's top sanctioning body, the Indy Racing League. Andretti Green Promotions agreed to coordinate and promote the race, now one of 17 races in the league's series, of which the Indianapolis 500 is the premier event.
Concrete barriers are going up this week for the Honda Grand Prix, a 14-turn, 1.8-mile street course that will include a runway at Albert Whitted Airport and a straightaway in front of the South Yacht Basin.
By most accounts, this year's race has stronger financial backing than the others.
Honda is the title sponsor and other sponsors include Bridgestone/Firestone, 7-Eleven and the Renaissance Vinoy Resort. Others announced Wednesday included the St. Petersburg Times, Jim Beam, Bright House Networks and Gehl, a manufacturer of agricultural implement and compact construction equipment.
Even though the 2003 race attracted about 50,000 people over three days, it lost money because it lacked a title sponsor and major backing by national corporations, said Baker. "That's how you make it a financial success," he said. "You don't have to rely on ticket sales alone."
Honda, the largest manufacturer of Indy car engines, has been affiliated with the Indy Racing League for three years and also is sponsoring one other race in this year's Indy series.
Rob Alen, manager of corporate advertising for American Honda in Los Angeles, said the car company views the South Florida area as an important market and has a multiyear agreement backing the St. Petersburg event.
"We think the race has the potential for being a really glamorous race, given the setting and the atmosphere," he said.
Other financial burdens for the race have been eased. For example, Dover Motorsports, which promoted the 2003 race, donated the concrete barriers, pedestrian bridges and fencing to the city, saving this year's race more than $1-million up front.
Green would like to make St. Petersburg's race the Monaco of the United States, or match the grandfather of all American street races, the Grand Prix of Long Beach. Now in its 31st year, that race drew more than 150,000 fans last year to that city's downtown waterfront and pumped about $40-million into the local economy.
Hundreds of street races have taken place in the past 20 years in cities stretching from Miami to Phoenix.
"Some are tremendous successes," said Mike Kerchner, senior editor of National Speed Sport News, a weekly auto racing publication in Harrisburg, N.C. "Others have failed miserably."
Race promotion is key, Kerchner said.
Baker believes St. Petersburg will get that from Green, a former racing team owner. He came out of retirement, moved to St. Petersburg and joined with Michael Andretti, son of legend Mario Andretti, to form Andretti Green Promotions.
City Council chairman Richard Kriseman points to the race's sanctioning agreement with the Indy Racing League as another good sign. The league is the dominant open-wheel series in North America since splitting with CART in 1996. It has big-dollar sponsors and high-profile drivers.
The St. Petersburg race is a notable expansion for the league, marking the first time it has departed from its traditional oval track in favor of a boomerang-shaped course. The change has created excitement among drivers and fans.
Unlike the 2003 race, which was televised only on Speed Channel, this one will be shown live on ESPN. "It's like a live two-hour commercial for St. Petersburg," Baker said.
Roger Bailey, executive director of the Infiniti Pro Series, said he's been to hundreds of courses around the globe and believes St. Petersburg is the perfect setting for a street race, next to the water with a vibrant downtown area and warm climate.
About 60,000 fans are expected, although tickets and hotels are still available.
Jim Davis will be one of those. He, too, believes this race will be the one that launches a new history for St. Petersburg auto racing.
"There's a lot of race fans who live in this area," said Davis, 36, who owns his own industrial lighting business. "We're southern folks. Even if you're not a race fan, it's just a fun thing to go and watch."
Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at 727 892-2273 or firstname.lastname@example.org