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Groups debateTampa CART race

The State Fair Authority has met with promoters and concerned neighbors. If it goes through, a race wouldn't happen until 2003.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 2, 2001


When CART left Homestead last season because of decreased interest at its events there, the open-wheel racing series did more than desert the state where eight of its drivers reside.

CART waved goodbye to three top 21 television markets -- Tampa Bay, Miami and Orlando -- and a prime tourist destination in favor of expansion to Mexico, Germany and England.

"I would love to go back to Florida," said Team Penske's Gil de Ferran, the defending CART champion and a Fort Lauderdale resident. "And I think there's quite a following in Florida. People enjoy racing. I get a lot of fan mail from Floridians."

An Alabama-based group and Dover Downs Entertainment are independently researching the possibility of bringing CART to the Tampa Bay area.

"Oh, yeah," CART president and CEO Joseph Heitzler said Friday when asked if the series would be interested in Tampa as a potential race venue. "That's a great demographic. That's a great part of the country. It's in Florida. It's in weather that we like."

International Racing Associates, based in Birmingham, Ala., hopes CART will award it rights to hold the Grand Prix of Florida in April 2003 at the Florida State Fairgrounds. Group chairman Michael Perry estimates a $30-million impact based on comparisons to the Grand Prix of Houston.


"We want to make this the East Coast golden gem or diamond in the rough," said Perry, who works in marketing and event promotions. "It will be a premier event. Nobody would suspect that from Tampa right now because it was on nobody's radar screen."

International Racing Associates presented its proposal to the State Fair Authority on Thursday, one day before Perry and his associates flew to Milwaukee planning to discuss the concept with CART officials. Heitzler said he was not aware of a meeting between CART officials and the group.

The Fair Authority agreed to continue negotiations with International Racing Associates, but Perry got an earful from neighbors skittish about noise problems from races held at the fairgrounds more than a decade ago.

"You've got to get complete support from everybody involved and if that's not there, then it's not going to happen," he said.

The 1.8-mile track was built for the World Challenge of Tampa, an event featuring GTP prototype cars and sanctioned by the International Motor Sports Association. Neighbors voiced concerns about unbearable decibel levels from the event before the first race in 1988 and last race in 1990.

"It was horrible, very bad," said Janice Davis, who lives in the nearby King's Forest neighborhood and attended Thursday's meeting. "There's no barrier between the neighborhood and this fairgrounds. The noise level is very high."

Perry hopes to quiet the noise with sound blankets and ease neighbors' minds with a series of meetings with neighborhood associations in coming weeks.

"We do work with the neighbors," said Rick Vymlatil, executive director of the State Fair Authority. "It's like anything else, you can't please 100 percent of the people. I think we have to show good faith and demonstrate to them that we're not trying to run them out of their homes."

International Racing Associates isn't the only group interested in bringing CART to the fairgrounds.

CART has turned to Dover Downs Entertainment to assist the series in identifying new markets.

Don Stansberry, a vice president for Dover Downs Entertainment, contacted Vymlatil after learning of the International Racing Associates' efforts. He attended Thursday's meeting and asked the board to consider his organization if it begins negotiating a contract.

Dover Downs operates five tracks around the country and promoted a total of 16 NASCAR, CART and NHRA events last season. The company organizes and promotes the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Heitzler said 550,000 fans attended activities over six days at Long Beach. Perry estimated that a CART race in Tampa could draw 125,000 or more fans over a five-day period.

"If someone wants to run a street race in a domestic market for us," Heitzler said, "we're certainly going to be all ears."

Want more?

For information about CART, check out these Web sites:

www.cart.com

www.texacogp.com

www.milwaukeemile.com

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