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Race fans savor a sunny Grand Prix day

ST. PETERSBURG

On a gorgeous sunny Sunday, there were lots of different ways to watch the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

If you paid extra for seats, you could watch from the grandstand as waves of sound washed over you. With a general admission ticket, you could watch from the outdoor deck of the Mahaffey Theater, or on a blanket in Pioneer Park or standing in the muddy infield. You could watch it on TV. If you live in a downtown high-rise, you could watch it from your balcony.

Or, if you're a member of the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, you could watch it without even buying a ticket.

Every year, the Yacht Club hosts a Grand Prix party on top of its three-story parking garage, located at the north end of the race course. Equipped with a barbecue pit and a bar, it's always a sellout. People line up two-deep at the edge of the concrete garage, peering down at cars squealing around turns 7 and 8.

"How about that screaming noise?" member Mark Majeske of St. Petersburg said as flames blasted from the rear of a passing IndyCar. "A great view, great vittles, a rum and Coke, and race cars. This is awesome."

Saturday had been a washout, as Grand Prix officials had to halt the day's events and evacuate fans when heavy rains pummeled the region.

In a welcome change, Sunday offered postcard-perfect weather — sunny but breezy and not too hot. Fans poured into the concourse, toting strollers and blankets and ear plugs. As a cool morning shifted into a blazing afternoon, jackets and sweatshirts gave way to T-shirts and sunscreen.

Race officials don't release attendance figures, but the place was packed. Hard-core race fans who traveled cross-country mixed with locals who were just out for a good time.

"This is our tradition. We've been coming here for 10 years. It's my birthday present to him," said Dan Neary of Land O'Lakes, accompanied by his 13-year-old son, Jacob. They were in the grandstand, watching sports cars compete in a Pirelli World Challenge race.

"This is our favorite race — cars you could actually buy," Neary said. "He likes Lamborghinis. I like the Cadillacs. The speed, it's a guy thing."

In leafy Pioneer Park at the race course's northern end, families spread out blankets on the grass.

"We come to this spot every year. It's nice and shady," said George Geiber of Largo, accompanied by his wife, Cheryl, and their three children, ages 12, 4 and 2. "It's great for the kids. The cars go all the way around you, but it's not too loud because they're braking."

It's not all race cars. In an area called the Speed Zone, located in the Al Lang Stadium parking lot, fans could take on a mechanical bull, a rock climbing wall, a bungee jump, boxing robots or a spinning thing called the Gyro-X-Treme.

Elsewhere downtown, businesses gave the Grand Prix mixed reviews.

"It's good for the city but not for us," said Peter Ceruzzi, event manager at Fresco's Waterfront Bistro. "Usually we're packed on Sunday. But the locals don't want to come down because they're afraid they can't park."

Back at the races, a crowd gathered on the outdoor deck of the Mahaffey Theater, considered a prime spot for its view of the track and the boats in the city's South Yacht Basin.

"This is the place," said Atlanta resident Bill Lohman, cracking open another Bud Light and gazing out over the water. "Today is way better than yesterday. This is supposed to be the Sunshine State. Thank God for a little sun."

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBrassfield.

Race fans savor a sunny Grand Prix day 03/30/14 [Last modified: Sunday, March 30, 2014 10:44pm]
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[Bill Serne | Times]