tampabay.com

Race hopes to turn corner

Drivers are drawing crowds, but not ones big enough to turn a profit - yet.

By AARON SHAROCKMAN
Published April 1, 2007


The state of IndyCar racing in St. Petersburg can be summed up on the concrete in front of Dan Wheldon's team Target trailer.

Wheldon is one of the series' top drivers, and the only driver racing today to call St. Petersburg home.

His presence - green Pumas, red jumpsuit, white sunglasses - immediately draws a crowd.

"You're our hometown guy," says one fan, pushing a picture in front of Wheldon to sign.

The pictures keep coming. Wheldon signs each with a scribbled D and adds his number, 10.

He signs dozens. Then he just stops.

"That's not me, man," he says to a fan holding a picture of Wheldon's teammate, Scott Dixon.

Minutes later, it happens again. "It's not me," he says again. "Sorry."

For all the money, prestige and exposure the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will bring the city this week - from the television coverage to the crowded downtown businesses to the booked-solid hotels - there are still a lot of people who don't know who Dan Wheldon is or what IndyCar's all about.

It's the plight of IndyCar nationwide and St. Petersburg's Grand Prix, which has yet to make a profit.

Today's race is a chance, officials say, to turn a corner. They think St. Petersburg can slowly become a racing city.

* * *

City and race officials have yet to extend the life of the grand prix beyond this year.

But both say there's plenty of evidence to suggest the race will eventually become an economic success story.

"I think everyone would like to break into a really big grin, but we're being judiciously conservative," said Kevin Dunn, who coordinates the race for the city. "If what's in place rolls out like we expect it to, I think we'll be fine."

Among the good news in this, the race's third year:

- Nine additional luxury suites have been sold at $25,000 apiece.

- Hospitality seats sold atop the Mahaffey Theater garage have doubled.

- Ticket sales to park recreational vehicles trackside have tripled.

- And general prerace tickets sales also bested 2006 figures.

But officials say that no matter how good things look, the race will still live or die on walkup traffic. The weekend collision with the MacDill AirFest is the variable in that equation that no one can predict.

If as many as 750,000 people are supposed to be in Tampa for a free air show, how many will be left to pony up at least $40 for today's race?

Even with 100,000 spectators last year, the grand prix lost money.

It costs millions of dollars alone to build the 1.8-mile race track, said Kevin Savoree, co-owner of race promoter Andretti Green.

It's unclear where the break-even line is for this year.

"When we entered into this, we all knew that in the near term, that the likelihood of turning this around ... was going to be an uphill battle," Savoree said. "But I don't think anybody, including us, has any thought of walking away from this. There hasn't been one whisper of that."

* * *

Because it's on city streets, the grand prix is much more expensive to operate than a regular race on an oval track, officials say.

But it also offers fans a different experience: unique angles, better views and the chance to get closer to the cars and drivers.

Drivers and Indy Racing League officials say the St. Petersburg race has the chance to match the famed city circuit in Monaco.

The race already is considered a jewel of the IndyCar Series - perhaps second only to the Indianapolis 500.

"The foundation is here. There is no question about that," said Terry Angstadt, president of the commercial division of the Indy Racing League. "I'd be very surprised if this doesn't continue for a long time."

Race promoters have an option that expires May 1 to extend the grand prix contract an additional two years.

That agreement comes with up $150,000 worth of in-kind services from the city of St. Petersburg.

The city also has secured a promise from military officials that MacDill's AirFest will not be scheduled the same weekend as the grand prix.

Savoree said race promoters, the city and title sponsor Honda will meet after the race and discuss what's next for the grand prix.

"What's going to determine the future is how the community supports the race," said Mario Andretti, whose son Michael is part owner of Andretti Green.

If Mario has a say, he'd love the race to succeed. He and his wife, Dee Ann, own a condominium on Clearwater Beach.

"It's like a second home to me," he said. "I want us to be here talking about this race 20 years from now."

* * *

Officials are trying to broaden the allure of the grand prix beyond just fast cars.

Alternative band Yellowcard plays after the race tonight, while on Saturday, the American Le Mans series targeted a "wine and cheese" crowd with its expensive sports cars, said grand prix general manager Tim Ramsberger.

Then there's a Ferris wheel and games for young children.

"I describe it as a three-day family festival with a race going on," said Mayor Rick Baker.

George Jaskiel made the trip from Tampa Saturday to bring his 4-year-old son Derrick to his first car race.

As the IndyCars slalomed around the course during a morning practice session, Derrick bounced on a bungee rope.

"We're kind of new to racing," said Jaskiel. "He likes to watch it on TV, so we thought we'd give this a try."

The two would stay as long as Derrick wanted to Saturday, Jaskiel said.

Today, they're heading to the air show in Tampa.

Staff writer Brant James contributed to this report. Aaron Sharockman can be reached at asharockman@sptimes.com or 727 892-2273.