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Severe weather forces Grand Prix fans' choice: stay or go

ST. PETERSBURG — By all accounts, it began as a great morning.

The beer was flowing, the funnel cakes were frying and fans were happily watching open-wheel racers jet around the track at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

"The atmosphere is awesome, so long as we don't have a tornado," David Earnsberger, 44, of Miami, said around noon, glancing up at clouds overhead.

But even international racing events aren't immune to Florida's changeable weather.

Race organizers were forced to halt the day's events and evacuate fans about 12:30 p.m. as a band of severe weather pummeled St. Petersburg, prompting a tornado watch from the National Weather Service.

Tarps went up and fans struggled to grab a last $7 Bud Light before they were faced with a decision: to seek shelter in one of the structures on site, or to throw in the towel and call it a day.

Friends Jay Lilley, 59, and John Franklin, 58, were sitting down to lunch when they heard the severe weather announcement. Experience with Florida races made Lilley think he didn't want to risk being trapped by the rain.

"I've sat through a lot of these at other races before," Lilley said.

Instead, the pair headed for the exit. Some who left crowded into Courigan's Irish Pub, near an exit, bringing an unexpected boost for the business.

"We were packed throughout the whole rain, believe it or not," employee Dan Lent said.

Fans who left during the evacuation were not allowed back in until after 3 p.m, when tornado watches for Pinellas County were canceled.

The rain delayed several of Saturday's races, including the Stadium Super Trucks race and the Indy Lights Qualifying and IndyCar qualifying rounds. No delays are expected for today's events, the biggest being the nationally and internationally broadcast Grand Prix at 3:20 p.m.

Many fans who stayed Saturday afternoon headed for the sheltered parking garage next to the Mahaffey Theater, which also served as the paddock area for many crews. Fans brought lunch, and when it began to drizzle just before 1 p.m., the air smelled like gyros and exhaust fumes.

Bill Zint, 57, chose to wait out the weather and didn't seem too distraught. He pointed to the yellow poncho in his bag.

"It's part of being a race fan," Zint said. "It's outside, so you have to deal with outside weather."

Zint lives in Treasure Island and has come to every race. But experience didn't tell him much about what to expect for the rest of the day. He held up his iPhone to display a radar screen with ominous patches of green and yellow.

"This does not look good," he said.

A few feet away, David PeQueen, 17, and his father were in limbo. They studied weather tracking apps and watched the light rain, trying to decide whether to linger inside the parking garage or go home to Plant City. PeQueen was disappointed.

"I wait all year for this," the Plant City High School student said. "I love IndyCars. This is my favorite racing series."

But the pair had tickets for today's events, for which the forecast is sunnier, and they wanted to get home in time to watch the University of Florida take on Dayton in the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

So when it still looked as though it wouldn't clear by 2:30 p.m., they headed back to their car. "We just gave up and came home," David's father, Jeff PeQueen, 48, said.

David was reluctant. But as they climbed into their car, Jeff said, the sky let loose.

Claire Wiseman can be reached at cwiseman@tampabay.com or (727)-893-8804. Follow @clairelwiseman on Twitter.

Severe weather forces Grand Prix fans' choice: stay or go 03/29/14 [Last modified: Saturday, March 29, 2014 11:02pm]
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