The roars of engines, the growls of neighbors

Published March 11, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - The city will spend more than $150,000 this year to bring flashy race cars to downtown streets for the second annual Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.


To some residents, especially those hemmed in by traffic and noise during the three-day event, it's a waste of taxpayer money.

"The noise is terrible," said Rex Brasell, president of the Bayfront Tower Association. "It's like jet airplanes all around us all day long."

But to civic boosters, it's the best investment the city makes all year. They point to studies that show the city reaps more than $5-million in tourism dollars and nearly $1-million in television advertising, along with the intangible benefit of hosting one of auto racing's most high-profile events.

"I can say, without any hesitation, the impact of this race far exceeds what we ever expected it to be," said Rick Mussett, the city's development administrator. "It gets us on the map, so to speak."

This year marks the first time in more than a decade that someone has staged an auto race for two consecutive years in St. Petersburg. Race organizers say they're hoping to draw as many as 100,000 spectators downtown between March 31-April 2. Last year's estimated attendance was 65,000.

Many of those people stay in hotels, eat in restaurants and shop downtown, pumping millions into the local economy, Mussett said. The St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention and Visitors Bureau estimated Grand Prix spectators gave the St. Petersburg area a $5.13-million boost last year.

Mussett said that more than offsets the $150,000 the city pays as part of its three-year contract with Andretti Green Promotions, the race's promoter.

And the race's benefit to St. Petersburg lasts long after the checkered flag is waved, Mussett said. The key reason: television.

More than 326,000 households tuned in for the ESPN broadcast of the race last year. The network plans to air it live again this year.

The ESPN coverage featured plenty of lingering shots of glittering waterfront and swaying palm trees. Commentators raved over the idyllic weather.

Mary Haban, public relations manager for the Convention and Visitors Bureau, said she hoped it inspired vacationers.

"The weather was so nice," Haban said. "And it was being watched by people up north, where it was still very cold."

Joyce Julius, an Ann Arbor, Mich., firm that tracks sponsor bang for the buck with a formula that takes into account time on television and ad rates, estimated St. Petersburg got the equivalent of $833,600 worth of advertising exposure during the race. Don Shea, president of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, called the broadcast a 21/2-hour commercial for the city.

"Our waterfront is so beautiful, we look like Monte Carlo," Shea said. The event is more than just a street race, said Tim Ramsberger, Grand Prix vice president. There also will be a stunt-plane air show at Albert Whitted Airport, concerts and street performers who will cater to young children.

Brasell, president of the Bayfront Tower Association, said he doesn't care how many different events are scheduled or how many tickets are sold. To him, the race is nothing more than a giant pain in the neck.

While some of his neighbors like the Grand Prix and organize viewing parties from their downtown condominiums, Brasell believes a majority dread the event. He especially hates feeling trapped in his building by race barriers.

"I don't like feeling like I live in Stalag 17," Brasell said, a reference to a notorious German prison camp.

Times Staff Writer Chris Miller contributed to this report.