Will deal help Grand Prix?

With IRL-Champ merger, officials of the St. Petersburg race think so.

By Brant James, Times Staff Writer
Published February 24, 2008

The way Kevin Savoree sees it, if the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is mentioned in the same breath with its older, more famous counterpart in Long Beach, Calif., it should be to note that his race has surpassed the other. That's his prerogative as managing director of the race through the downtown streets set for its fourth running April 6.

The way Tim Ramsberger sees it, promoting this area's open-wheel race will get a lot easier with the news Friday that the Indy Racing League, which sanctions the event, will absorb elements of the rival Champ Car series. Among those elements would be the 2003 winner of the race when it was a stop on the Champ Car tour. And the thought of Paul Tracy bombing the first turn in the first unified street race after 12 years of open war has the race vice president and general manager stoked.

"It's probably one of the most exciting things that could have happened with the opportunity to grow our event here," Ramsberger said.

St. Petersburg has become one of the most anticipated IRL venues. Now it faces a direct comparison to what has long been the United States' signature street race. Long Beach is seen as a valuable property - so much so that Champ Car's ownership entered a partnership to buy its assets in 2005, after IRL CEO Tony George tried to cherry-pick it in bankruptcy court in 2004. It is one of three to fourrace dates reportedly to be absorbed into the IRL schedule.

St. Petersburg's slot two weeks before Long Beach gives it historical significance and a chance to prove Savoree's point. It's second only to the Indianapolis 500 in popularity with drivers because its intimate urban feel is much more personal than the concrete-and-steel monotony of the ovals that dominate the schedule. Drivers stroll for fresh fruit at Publix. Danica Patrick has a favorite coffee shop.

"Have you been to Long Beach?" Savoree said in December when asked if his race can achieve Long Beach status. "I have been at both, and I would compare this one very favorably to a Long Beach, and it's got a big head start. I just think you could ask an awful lot of race people and I think most of those race people would pick this race event over Long Beach."

Ramsberger, who worked for the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach, said: "I think it's a compliment just to know that in four short years we're being compared to a street race that has been in business for 34 years."

The merger could affect the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg's customary running on the first Sunday in April, however, because IRL spokesman Fred Nation told USA Today that the 2009 schedule and beyond will be drawn on "a clean sheet of paper." Ramsberger said the Grand Prix will have more flexibility than before because the Rays will conduct spring training in Port Charlotte beginning next year, which will leave Progress Energy Park dormant. The complex is enclosed in the 1.88-mile course and its grounds used for parking and infrastructure. Any plans for a Rays waterfront ballpark, of course, would complicate the issue.

Tracy (Forsythe), Bruno Junqueira (Dale Coyne last season), Oriol Servia and Alex Tagliani (PKV) are the only drivers who contested the Champ Car-sanctioned Grand Prix in 2003 who still compete in that series. But Rocketsports head Paul Gentilozzi, part-owner of the Champ Car series, said he won't join IRL for financial reasons even though teams have been promised free engine leases, chassis and as much as $1.2-million per car entered. Still, Ramsberger expects newly integrated teams to emphasize this event because street racing was Champ Car's regime and St. Petersburg would be the first street race in a merged schedule.

As many as 10 cars are expected to join the IRL. Although it might take until June for all to assimilate, larger teams such as Newman/Haas/Lanigan and Forsythe should be ready for the Grand Prix.

"I think basic physics will tell you that we're trying to get more cars at a high rate of speed through the first turn here, and it should be that much more exciting," Ramsberger said. "You're going to have drivers that competed here in '03, so you're going to bring back racers who haven't been here in a while, and I think they're going to want to make a statement."

Brant James can be reached at brant@sptimes.com or(727) 893-8804.