ST. PETERSBURG — Professional drivers will race down Bayshore Drive at 200 mph today. They'll wear safety harnesses and ride in custom-made cars designed to withstand the occasional collision with a concrete wall.
All of it will be done according to international auto racing regulations, say Grand Prix officials.
But at a time when fatalities involving street races are on the rise in Florida, some critics would like race promoters to do a better job of highlighting the differences between legal and illegal racing.
The Grand Prix, they say, glamorizes speeding while overlooking the dangers of street competitions.
"Our children are at risk," said Cynthia Ranyak, whose 18-year-old daughter was killed in a street race while on the way to the Grand Prix in 2005. "They look at kids like Marco (Andretti) and Danica (Patrick) and all these young drivers, and they think they are heroes or role models, and they want to try it for themselves."
Officials from Andretti Green Promotions, which owns and manages the Grand Prix, said fans can distinguish between legal and illegal racing. Adding a disclaimer or issuing a warning about the perils of street racing is unnecessary, said Al Larsen, a Grand Prix spokesman.
"We don't promote illegal street racing or condone illegal street racing," he said. "What we promote here is professional auto racing. That is what we have — professional race car drivers competing on what becomes an internationally certified race course."
Florida ranks third in the nation for fatalities involving illegal street racing.
There were 14 in 2006, up from six deaths in 2001, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Only California and Texas surpass Florida's street racing death toll.
"It's been a long-standing concern," said Capt. Mark Welch, a spokesman for the Florida Highway Patrol.
In Tampa, where areas such as Gandy Boulevard, the Courtney Campbell Parkway and the Howard Frankland Bridge have become popular racing scenes, there have been 41 arrests involving racing since 2006, according to police. Other local police departments said they do not keep track of racing-related arrests, but there have been several recent high-profile cases throughout the Tampa Bay area.
In April, Lucy Thibodeaux, 16, and Robert Kolp, 20, died in an accident that involved racing on the Courtney Campbell Parkway. A month later, Tampa police arrested eight racers along the same stretch of road.
In August, witnesses said Nick Bollea, son of wrestler Hulk Hogan, was racing when he crashed his Toyota Supra in Clearwater, leaving his passenger, John Graziano, facing a lifetime of medical care. Bollea faces a felony charge of reckless driving with serious bodily injury.
In October, a Clearwater police dog was injured when a racer crashed into an officer's vehicle.
"A lot of the people who street race are young drivers who do not have a lot of experience," said Andrea Davis, a spokeswoman for the Tampa Police Department. "It is a recipe for disaster."
Lost loved ones
Bruce Murakami founded Safe Teen Driver, a St. Petersburg-based nonprofit that teaches young people about responsible driving, including the dangers of street racing.
Murakami, who plans to attend the Grand Prix, said he has been disappointed by announcements for the racing weekend.
"Watching the … Grand Prix is entertaining. It's about fun," he said. "But they could put a little tagline about how this is street racing in a legal, safe environment. These kids need to realize these race cars are designed to be able to take a crash while going 200 miles per hour. Your Toyota Corolla cannot."
Murakami has firsthand experience with the deadly consequences of street racing. His wife, Cindy, and 11-year-old daughter, Chelsea, were killed in 1998 when a racer crashed into their vehicle in Tampa.
Ranyak, who lives in Merritt Island, knew little about street racing before the death of her only daughter. Now, she can't help but associate racing events such as the Grand Prix with Emily's death.
Witnesses told police that Emily's boyfriend, William Riehl, was racing when his car crashed. Emily was a passenger. Both young adults were killed.
Riehl, 18, was a close friend of Marco Andretti's. The race driver's family produces the Grand Prix.
Ranyak said she wishes she had warned her daughter not to ride in a speeding car.
"It never crossed my mind," she said. "I thought I didn't have to worry about that."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or firstname.lastname@example.org.