tampabay.com

Race revs up sponsors, events

Grand Prix owner Andretti Green Promotions promises more of everything, except profits.

By LOUIS HAU
Published March 3, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG - After a successful inaugural run in 2005, the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is gearing up for another go around this year with more of almost everything.

That includes more racing. More entertainment. More sponsorship dollars.

One thing it won't have is more profits. The Indy Racing League-sanctioned Grand Prix lost money last year and is expecting to do so again this year.

But Grand Prix owner Andretti Green Promotions remains confident it is laying the groundwork for an event with long-term viability and the potential to turn a profit soon, said Grand Prix managing director Kevin Savoree. Savoree said Thursday that the race might break even as soon as next year.

"I think all of us, whether it's Andretti Green Promotions, (title sponsor) Honda or the city of St. Petersburg, all these key partners . . . . really believe in this event," he said.

The staging of the 2006 race, which will take place March 31 through April 2, will achieve a modest milestone of sorts: It will be the first time in nearly a decade that someone has managed to stage an auto race in St. Petersburg for at least two consecutive years.

The Florida Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, a Trans-Am series event sanctioned by the Sports Car Club of America, accomplished the feat in 1996 and 1997, before folding after the loss of title sponsor Kash n' Karry.

More recently, Championship Auto Racing Teams brought open-wheel racing to St. Petersburg with a grand prix race in 2003, only to go belly-up. The Champ Car World Series, which acquired many of CART's assets, failed to stage a race the next year.

To help ensure the success of St. Petersburg's latest stab at an annual auto race, Andretti Green has expanded its roster of corporate sponsors. Most key sponsors from last year have returned, including Honda, Firestone, 7-Eleven, the Renaissance Vinoy Resort & Golf Club, XM Satellite Radio, Klein Tools and the St. Petersburg Times.

Andretti Green is in renewal talks with two sponsors from last year, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority and the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, according to Grand Prix vice president Tim Ramsberger. Meanwhile, the organizers have signed Internet phone company Vonage Holdings and AirTran Airways to sponsorship pacts and expect to announce more deals before the race, Ramsberger said.

The result will be a net gain in sponsorship revenue, Savoree said, declining to disclose detailed numbers.

To draw more than just racing fans, Andretti Green has again scheduled a full roster of entertainment, which will include an encore presentation of last year's popular stunt-plane air show, as well as new attractions such as street entertainers catering to young children. Sponsors and product vendors will again showcase their wares around the event grounds, including at the Mahaffey Theater, which had been closed last year because of renovations.

Also on the agenda is a post-race concert by a nationally known music act to be announced. The Sunday-night performance will target the same young demographic that last year's show by Good Charlotte did, Ramsberger said.

Meanwhile, a second concert is being planned for midday Saturday, with a famous music group that will appeal to a somewhat older fans, he said.

"It introduces the overall (racing) product to somebody who might not otherwise be exposed to it," he said. "Somebody might be interested in just showing up for that particular (music) act, come out, be pleasantly surprised and we convert them as race fans."

Ramsberger added that, "What we're all about is a three-day festival, with racing as the centerpiece of the entertainment."

Speaking of which, this year's Grand Prix will feature more on-track events, including an Indy Pro Series race the day before the main race.

While Andretti Green is keeping its marketing efforts focused on the Tampa Bay area, it is planning to advertise as far away as Fort Myers, Orlando and Jacksonville, Ramsberger said.

Print and TV ads have begun running, with radio ads and billboards along Interstate 275 to be unveiled next week.

ESPN will again broadcast the main race live. Savoree said local viewership for last year's race indicated that more than 55,000 households had tuned in, which he said bodes well for the future.

"We all went into this understanding that we were making an investment," Savoree said, alluding to the fact that the race is still seeking to turn a profit. "Certainly as we move forward, as a business, this is going to have to make sense."

Andretti Green's three-year Grand Prix contract with St. Petersburg will expire in 2007. Savoree said the organizers expect to seek an extension.

"I think everyone feels very strongly about this city, this venue," he said.

Information from Times files was included in this report. Louis Hau can be reached at 813 226-3404 or hau@sptimes.com