tampabay.com

AirFest, race set for same weekend

By AARON SHAROCKMAN
Published December 7, 2006


MacDill Air Force Base's immensely popular air show, which draws as many as 750,000 people to South Tampa over two days, will return this spring after a one-year hiatus, Air Force officials said Wednesday.

The free AirFest event, scheduled for March 31 and April 1, will feature the Navy's Blue Angels and dozens of other ground and aerial displays, officials at the air base said.

Tampa hotels and businesses will welcome it back. But not everyone is cheering.

The AirFest is scheduled on the same weekend as St. Petersburg's fledgling Grand Prix race event, causing consternation among civic leaders there.

"I'm very disappointed," said St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, who lobbied unsuccessfully for the Air Force to pick a different weekend.

"Their event is actually paid for by the government and given away for free, and now it's competing with a private event - the largest downtown weekend event in our year."

But Tampa developer Al Austin, who once headed a MacDill support committee for the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, suggests the worry is unfounded.

"I tell you this, the Tampa Bay area has, what, about 4-million people," he said. "So when you have two events simultaneously, I think there's a possibility no one will suffer."

Still, the collision of the two events, which became clear to Grand Prix race officials only Wednesday afternoon, is a deflating and potentially stinging blow to the car race in its third year.

Last year's three-day race event drew 100,000 paying spectators, according to officials. Now, Grand Prix organizers wonder how the race, where tickets cost up to $110, will be able to compete with the free AirFest.

"We're going to disappoint fans who want to attend both. Now they have a conflict," said race organizer Tim Ramsberger.

A spokesman for the air base said officials checked calendars to avoid conflicts but somehow missed the race. It's too late to change schedules now.

Scheduling is hard because groups like the Blue Angels are available on only certain weekends, said Capt. Wes Ticer.

"By the time we found out about the Grand Prix, we couldn't change it," Ticer said.

The air show was canceled last year because military commitments stretched the Air Force too thin. In 2005, the AirFest and the Grand Prix occurred on consecutive weekends in April.

Ticer said the AirFest may explore a partnership with the street race for this year's event. Perhaps aerial displays could be part of the race weekend, he said.

Race officials aren't sure to what extent that's possible. The race schedule had been set for months precisely to avoid a major conflict. ESPN is scheduled to televise the Sunday IndyCar Series race, and the Speed Channel will televise the Saturday Le Mans event.

Baker thinks both events will likely lose out a little.

"It's pretty silly to have both on the same weekend," he said.

But James Basta, 66, a longtime AirFest volunteer, notes that the planes fly over St. Petersburg, too. "You go to the race, and you can still see a bit of the air show."

Times staff writers Rebecca Catalanello and Carrie Weimar contributed to this report. Aaron Sharockman can be reached at asharockman@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2273.

A collision course

Two of the area's major outdoor events have been accidentally scheduled for the same spring weekend.

MacDill AirFest

Dates: March 31-April 1

Where: MacDill Air Force Base, South Tampa

2005 attendance: 750,000 (not held in 2006)

Admission: Free

Honda Grand Prix ofSt.Petersburg

Dates: March 30-April 1

Where: Downtown St.Petersburg

2006 attendance: 100,000

Admission: $25-$110