Grand Prix is a winner for St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — In sluggish economic times, a bunch of lightning-fast race cars brought a jolt of energy and record-breaking crowds to this city — not to mention an infusion of cash.

Call it the Indy car stimulus package.

Mayor Rick Baker said this year's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg drew a bigger crowd than last year, so the annual event is on firm footing: "I think it's set to be here forever."

Race promoters called the weekend a smashing success, so they definitely want to add another year to their contract with the city. That would keep the Grand Prix here through 2014.

And businesspeople around downtown St. Petersburg, from hoteliers and restaurateurs to sweaty pedicab drivers, said the surge in customers over the past few days was most welcome — like a thirsty traveler getting a drink in the desert.

"This is the biggest weekend of the year for us," said Tim Toon, manager of the sports bar and grill Midtown Sundries. "A lot of restaurants are closing. In this economic climate, for us to be having positive sales is a very good thing."

Downtown has been hopping. Chris Robinson, a rickshaw driver for St. Pete Pedicabs, spent four days and nights hauling around visitors from Italy, Portugal, Australia, Canada and England. "It's as busy as I've ever seen it," he said.

The city's oldest bar, Mastry's on Central Avenue, was packed with patrons who trekked back and forth between the sun-splashed racetrack and the dark, air-conditioned bar. "The Grand Prix has been very, very good to us," said bartender Patricia Warren.

Record crowd

It wasn't always this way.

Street racing has a long and rocky history in St. Petersburg. Over two decades, several attempts to bring a grand prix here ended in the red and left promoters bankrupt.

Despite all that, the mayor lobbied hard for the Indy Racing League to come here. The current Grand Prix of St. Petersburg started in 2005 and has been regarded as a success ever since.

Race officials don't provide attendance figures. But after talking to police and promoters, Baker said this year topped last year's estimated crowd of 140,000 over three days.

"When you're in economic times like this, it's good for people to get together and enjoy something together," Baker said. "It adds to the life of the city."

The Grand Prix is already under contract to stay in St. Petersburg through 2013. Kevin Savoree, managing director of Andretti Green Promotions, said the race promoter now plans to seek a one-year extension.

"We're thrilled with how the event has gone," he said Sunday. "It's been a fantastic weekend. All three days exceeded expectations."

Not everyone is a fan, of course. Some downtown residents complain about the persistent noise of the Indy car engines and the traffic hassles due to closed streets.

But some of their neighbors hold race-watching parties on the balconies of their waterfront condos. The Grand Prix has become a tourism boon, filling local hotels and generating lots of foot traffic downtown. In television footage of the race, St. Petersburg looks like a tropical paradise of palm trees, blue water and white yachts.

Baker, who's in his final year as mayor, had never gotten into an Indy car before this weekend. At 6-feet-7, he could never fit.

This time, he finally got strapped into the back of a two-seater with a professional driver to take him around the track and its 14 turns. Top speed: 130 mph.

"They took the seat out. I was sitting in the frame," he said, laughing. "They really crunched me into the car. I was just stuffed into that thing."

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4160.

Grand Prix is a winner for St. Petersburg 04/05/09 [Last modified: Sunday, April 5, 2009 11:07pm]

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