Downtown's glitzy racing weekend returns Thursday with the promise of celebrity sightings, swanky parties and fast cars.
But for every race fan eagerly anticipating the smell of burning tires, it seems there is someone crossing his fingers that the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will miraculously disappear.
The race shuts down part of downtown for at least two weeks and makes it difficult, if not impossible, to visit popular venues like Pioneer Park, the Mahaffey Theater and the city marina.
"I hate it," said Marilyn Heitman, a downtown resident who usually leaves town during the race weekend. "It's just loud and dirty and it takes them two weeks to get the fencing down. We are just barricaded into Bayfront Towers. It's like a little prison."
The city's love/hate relationship with street racing is as old as the Grand Prix itself, according to city leaders, who note that critics have always complained about the noise and traffic associated with the event.
"There is a real part of our area that loves racing, and that is why you have so many people that come," said City Council Chairman Jamie Bennett. "And then you have people who feel they are inconvenienced."
Advocates say the Grand Prix, in its fourth consecutive year, lends a hip carnival atmosphere to downtown. In addition to street races, organizers promise rock climbing, a waterfront Ferris wheel, air shows and celebrities.
Miss America Kirsten Haglund will kick off the event with the famous "start your engines" command, and pop group Gym Class Heroes will rock out during an afternoon concert. Hollywood icons Ashley Judd, David Letterman, Paul Newman and McDreamy himself, Patrick Dempsey, all noted race car fans and supporters, have visited the Grand Prix in recent years.
"We like to call it the world's fastest spring break party," said Tim Ramsberger, vice president and general manager of Andretti Green Promotions, promoters of the Honda Grand Prix. "It's more than just racing."
City or race officials said they have no way of knowing just how much this party pumps into the Tampa Bay area economy annually, although local tourism officials estimate the Grand Prix weekend is one of St. Petersburg's busiest.
The city estimates that as many as 125,000 fans attended the event last year. Race officials would not provide attendance figures.
In exchange for handing over part of downtown to Andretti Green Promotions, the city receives millions in free advertising. The racing series will air in six languages to at least 50-million viewers throughout Europe and Latin America this weekend. On Saturday, the Acura Sports Car Challenge will air live on ABC.
Area businesses also hope to profit from the race.
The Hilton St. Petersburg's Spa Olimpia has several secret celebrity guests booked for massages and pedicures during the race weekend, Ceviche Tapas Bar and Restaurant on Central Avenue has an arrangement with Andretti promotions that will allow its patrons a glimpse of the racetrack, and the Renaissance Vinoy Resort has been sold out for weeks.
"It will be kind of Monte Carlo-ish, if you will, for three or four days," said Vinoy spokesman Dennis Lesko.
Locals are getting in on the fun, too. Hundreds of downtown condominium dwellers are expected to throw rooftop parties and crowd onto balconies for a free glimpse of the racetrack this weekend.
"There is just something about auto racing that is kind of sexy," said Willi Rudowsky, a Bayfront Tower resident who expects friends over to watch the race.
Bumpy past, present
Street racing has a long and tumultuous history in St. Petersburg.
Several attempts to bring a Grand Prix to the city have ended in bankruptcy for event promoters since 1985. After a 2003 race event ended in the red, city officials began courting the Indy Racing League. In 2005, the Grand Prix returned with Andretti Green Promotions behind the wheel.
But some businesses and organizations say they almost wish the city hadn't resurrected the race.
Albert Whitted Airport hosted a grand opening for its new playground in February, only to learn weeks later that the park would have to be dismantled and closed for more than a month to make way for racetrack construction.
"It was a real disappointment," said Terri Griner, president of the airport's preservation society.
Racing officials began setting up barricades in front of Courigan's Irish Pub on Beach Drive two weeks again. Bar owner Sam Martin said he loses thousands of dollars each year because of the race.
"You can't see me," he said. "You will never get here if you don't know how to get here."
Performers with the American Stage Theater will wear microphones to hear one another during rehearsals at Demens Landing this weekend. The theater's annual performance in the park starts next week.
"It is a little inconvenient," said Andy Orrell, the theater's spokesman. "We are rehearsing out there with Formula One cars going by really loudly."
Andretti Green Promotions said it sent area businesses track construction schedules. The organization has also tried to give back to the city through volunteer work and an annual charitable gala. Drivers Hideki Mutoh and Patrick Long are expected to visit patients at All Children's Hospital on Thursday.
"We take pride in our approach in trying to be a good community partner," Ramsberger said.
The city's agreement with Andretti Green Productions ends in 2009, but city leaders and race promoters said they are eager to see the Grand Prix become a permanent presence in St. Petersburg.
"I'm not a big race junkie," said Bennett, "but it appears that the race has been developing a following ... I don't see it going away."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or firstname.lastname@example.org.