Fans brave rain threat to be at Honda Grand Prix

ST. PETERSBURG — Bill Flynn escapes Oregon's gloomy winter by planning a vacation every year around the Honda Grand Prix.

The weeklong trip begins with baseball games and ends with the race's checkered flag. He didn't care that the sun hid behind clouds Sunday.

"It's a good time to be in St. Petersburg," Flynn, 74, said before the green flag dropped. "It's exciting."

Betsy Zieber agreed.

The former St. Petersburg resident and her friend stood at attention with their hands over their hearts as the national anthem echoed above the grandstands.

Zieber moved to Uniontown, Ohio, 33 years ago. She attends the race to see her son, who works for K-Pax Racing. Her only complaint: The city and race organizers don't hold or advertise enough events before the weekend festivities. She wants more.

"Overall, they do a great job," Zieber said. "I love this city."

Grand Prix officials do not release attendance figures. City officials estimate that more than 100,000 people attended the three-day event. The figure has grown from 65,000 in 2005.

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Weather forecasts calling for rain Sunday afternoon didn't keep all fans away. Many carried umbrellas and parkas. The sun and blue skies burst through the clouds 30 minutes before the race. The rays disappeared minutes later as strong winds flapped the tops of palm trees.

While walking through the crowds and greeting fans, Mayor Bill Foster said he noticed more people at Friday's events this year than at any other day of the three-day events in prior years.

Mark Wendle, 52, and Lonnie Shaw, 47, attend every year.

The fans from Clearwater came all three days for more than fast cars and pork chops on sticks or gyros from concession stands.

With a camera in hand, the duo stood on a curb waiting for race drivers and women in scant clothing.

"We're race car driver stalking," Wendle said, laughing. "We're checking out the babes in boots. It's people watching at its best."

As soon as the race started, several hundred fans packed Pioneer Park and claimed grass spots with blankets and towels.

Mothers covered kids' ears as the drivers roared around the park before exploding onto the straightaway along Bayshore Drive NE.

Organizers expanded the fan hangout area this year by adding go-carts. Some kids also lumbered up a rock wall as parents pointed to speeding cars.

At times, the race has hurt attendance at the Salvador Dalí Museum. The impact is unknown this year because an official didn't return a call. To enter, visitors had to buy tickets to the race and museum, which dropped its price to $10.

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Elsewhere downtown, businesses owners hoped some high-powered enthusiasm would drive people to spend cash beyond the race barriers. Results were mixed.

A crowd packed in behind a fence at Cevíche Tapas Bar and Restaurant, next to Turn 8. Fans paid an extra $15 for the view.

General manager Kris Adams said the threat of rain kept some people away. Overall, business was good during the three days, he said, adding: "We enjoy having the people here."

The foot traffic diminished a few blocks away at Beach Drive NE and Fourth Street.

Paul Bailey, owner of the Savory Spice Shop, said sales dropped 30 percent Saturday and didn't look good for Sunday.

In years past, flashing signs directed visitors to parking lots near the race. At the urging of several business owners this year, the city added a message directing visitors to Beach Drive. It didn't help much.

"There's plenty of parking out there," Bailey said. "I still remain upbeat about being here."

Desiree Noisette, owner of neighboring Cerulean Blu Swim & Resort Wear Boutique, said weekend sales were 60 percent lower than last week. She opened the business last May and assumed the race would bring dismal sales after hearing tales from business owners about previous years.

"Business was surprisingly better than expected," she said.

Sales slowed at Detroit Liquors during the race. But clerk Ben Pridgeon expected them to climb after the race ended and into Sunday evening. He compared the race's foot traffic with a Saturday Morning Market and First Friday concert.

But something stood out this year, he said, adding: "I've seen a lot more inebriated people."

Mark Puente can be reached at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow him on Twitter @markpuente.

Fans brave rain threat to be at Honda Grand Prix 03/24/13 [Last modified: Sunday, March 24, 2013 10:35pm]

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