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Grand Prix draws fans, elicits tributes, in downtown St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — As Gary Shetye watched Indy cars speed down Bay Shore Drive NE, the Palm Harbor boy imagined himself in the driver's seat.

Gary, 11, loved his toy cars and knew he was hooked on race car driving after his first visit to the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg two years ago.

"I like fast stuff," said Gary, whose enthusiasm has spread to sister Mona, 7, who dreams of boosting the ranks of female drivers, and brother Alex, 10.

"I like watching the cars overtaking each other," Alex said.

The siblings were among tens of thousands of spectators who filled bleachers, packed boats, waved from apartment balconies and lined the barricaded streets of downtown St. Petersburg for the eighth annual race Sunday.

Spectators ranged from locals out for a good time to hard-core race fans like Jeffrey Barrett, who travels across the United States watching races. Racing, the Ocala man said, is "my thing."

"I just love ... anything with wheels on it," Barrett said. "The roar of the engines and the smell of the fuel and rubber. That keeps your motor running."

For many spectators, the buildup was just as exciting as the big event.

Hours before the race, Gerry Fults, 52, of Elkhart, Ind., and Cheryl Cloux, 25, of Geneva, Switzerland, wandered by the Mahaffey Theater with cameras in hand.

Cloux beamed as she managed to grab a couple of her favorite race car drivers long enough to pose for a quick photo and chat with them in French.

Both women travel the United States watching races and have kept in touch since they met three years ago through the IndyCar Nation Fan Club.

Like 3-year-old Reese Sanchez, the women wore orange as a tribute to IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon of St. Petersburg, who died last year in a crash in Las Vegas.

But Reese's dad, 31-year-old Rylan Sanchez of Treasure Island, said the orange ribbon Reese wore was special because it was pinned to a black Ganassi Racing hat the late driver had given to the boy.

Sanchez, vice president of a Clearwater company that sponsors drivers, said Wheldon was a friend and a "great guy." In addition to honoring him, Sanchez said his family has been attending the race for five years because "it's a great event for the city" and because "racing in general is a good way to spend family time."

In addition to quality time, proximity was a draw for Tampa native Felipe Martinez, who brought his girlfriend, Natalie Horn, and her 5-year-old son, Kaden.

"Somewhere you tend to walk through normally, then having the race cars drive through, is pretty cool," said Martinez, 28.

From race memorabilia to ear plugs to snow cones, the crowds kept vendors like Randy Owens busy. Owens, a Maryland artist who travels the country selling his paintings of sports racing scenes, said customers included serious fans who traveled from out of town and locals who simply love the atmosphere.

"St. Petersburg is one of my favorite destinations," Owens said. "This is a wonderful atmosphere. Palm trees, sailboats and sunshine — you can't get a better race combination than that."

Several downtown business owners said the Grand Prix was good for sales, too.

The Avenue, a restaurant that opened on First Avenue S four months ago, offered a free drink special to patrons who showed an event ticket. Co-owners Stephen Schrutt and Chris Dorsey said the promotion drew a sizable after-race dinner crowd, which included mostly regulars but also a few new faces.

Similarly, Z Grille owner Zack Gross said the Grand Prix only added to a "marathon" month in which business has been boosted by visitors attending baseball and St. Patrick's Day events.

"People may not come and eat today, but they see the restaurant," Gross said. "It's the best free advertising you can get."

Keyonna Summers can be reached at ksummers@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4153.

Grand Prix draws fans, elicits tributes, in downtown St. Petersburg 03/25/12 [Last modified: Sunday, March 25, 2012 10:21pm]
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