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Racing merger called exciting for Grand Prix fans

Picture race car drivers Paul Tracy and Danica Patrick careening down downtown's tightest corridors, their cars roaring side by side toward the finish line as the Tampa Bay waterfront glistens in the background.

It's a fantasy city leaders can't get enough of these days.

With the Honda Grand Prix less than five weeks away, city officials and business leaders are busy speculating about the impact the recent merger of open-wheel racing's two competing series will have on St. Petersburg's annual race.

Indy Racing League, the Grand Prix's sanctioning body, announced a merger with Champ Car World Series earlier this month in a move that could bring up to 10 new drivers to the St. Petersburg race, including Tracy.

The Grand Prix will be the first street race under the merger.

"It's very exciting," Mayor Rick Baker said. "The success of St. Pete's race is tied to the success of IndyCar Racing. This is a move we have been hoping for since IndyCar came to St. Petersburg."

The Grand Prix also stands to gain greater exposure this year because a wider pool of fans will most likely tune in to the televised race, said Tim Ramsberger, vice president and general manager of Andretti Green Promotions, which owns the Grand Prix.

"You are basically combining two series that have a great loyal fan base," he said. "Having one series is obviously going to mean having better competition on the track."

Corporate sponsorship should also increase, Ramsberger said.

The merger comes after a bitter 12-year split that divided fan loyalties and ultimately secured NASCAR's role as the dominant form of racing in the United States.

Under the new deal, the series will compete as the Indy Racing League after absorbing key Champ Car teams and dates.

Champ Car has a brief, but complicated history with the St. Petersburg Grand Prix. The series hosted the city's first race in 2003, which drew about 50,000 fans to the downtown waterfront, but lost a reported $1.3-million. Plans for a 2004 race ran into obstacles and eventually the city reached a deal with Indy Racing instead.

News that Champ Car drivers could return to St. Petersburg was welcomed by local business leaders.

The Grand Prix, scheduled for April 4 through 6, has become a tourist boon for St. Petersburg. During race weekends, oversized yachts flock to Tampa Bay, dotting the shore, hotels across the county fill up and downtown is flooded with onlookers and race car enthusiasts.

"This is definitely something for us to watch," said John T. Long, president of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce of the merger. "It adds even more excitement to the race."

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

Racing merger called exciting for Grand Prix fans 03/01/08 [Last modified: Saturday, March 1, 2008 5:01am]
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