At Honda Grand Prix, some things remain the same, others change

ST. PETERSBURG

Linda Dawley did not grow up as a race fan, but her husband, David, did.

Early in their 20 year marriage, Linda gave up the fight.

"It's on our TV all the time," the 63-year-old bookkeeper said. "I couldn't help catching the bug."

Now they both consider themselves "super fans." On Saturday, they drove from their Tampa home to downtown St. Petersburg for the eighth annual Honda Grand Prix, one of their favorite events.

"We've been coming for years," Dawley said. "It's so up close, the thrill of the engines. ... I just love watching them."

Although this year's race has the same physical footprint as years past, organizers said they packed in more entertainment than ever.

"We're busting at the seams," Grand Prix general manager Tim Ramsberger said. "Ticket sales have been pacing ahead of last year. And all signs are pointing that this may be our biggest year yet."

The Grand Prix does not release attendance figures. In 2005, city officials estimated that about 65,000 people went to the three-day event. In recent years, the crowds have more than doubled.

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This year organizers expanded the fan hang-out spaces and brought back the Budweiser Clydesdales and the Ferris wheel. But the Red Bull Air Show was out this year, and there weren't any concerts. Race officials also worked hard to promote the Dalí Museum, which had raised concerns about the negative effect the Grand Prix had on attendance last year.

There appeared to be a steady stream of folks going inside, though museum officials would not give a head count. Many said the discounted price — $10 instead of the usual $21 for adults — was too good to pass up.

"We didn't even know the Grand Prix was happening at first," said Matt Flewelling, 39, who brought his family over from Orlando.

Flewelling and his girlfriend, Jessenia Tadena, 39, visited the old museum years ago when they first started dating. They wanted to check out the new one, as well as give Tadena's 16-year-old daughter, Ashley, a budding artist, a chance to see Dalí's work.

It didn't hurt that, once the family finished at the museum, they could watch the races too.

"I've loved it," Tadena said. "This is a great opportunity to do both at the same time."

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Elsewhere downtown, businesses owners were hoping some of that enthusiasm would drive people to venture beyond the race barriers. The results, so far, were mixed.

"We are very pro-downtown St. Pete and very proactive in everything that goes on down here," said Linda Albrecht, owner of the Gift Box and a board member of the Downtown Business Association who opened her shop last May. "I was looking forward to having gobs of new people, tourists. ... We haven't seen that."

Paul Bailey, owner of the neighboring Savory Spice Shop, said the same thing happened last year. In fact, he said, business actually seems to dip during the Grand Prix. He said he figures it's a combination of locals staying away and race fans who come for the race and not much else.

Still, many business owners stressed that they aren't against the race itself.

"It's a great thing for the city," Bailey said. "I'd just like to benefit a little."

At Honda Grand Prix, some things remain the same, others change 03/24/12 [Last modified: Saturday, March 24, 2012 9:24pm]

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