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Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

Some watch Grand Prix from the best seats on the street

Spectators watch the cars zoom by in downtown St. Petersburg on Saturday. In past races, Grand Prix officials put up the red tarp to keep nonpaying spectators from observing the race, but this year a hole was cut so officials could monitor the drivers.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

Spectators watch the cars zoom by in downtown St. Petersburg on Saturday. In past races, Grand Prix officials put up the red tarp to keep nonpaying spectators from observing the race, but this year a hole was cut so officials could monitor the drivers.

ST. PETERSBURG — The line for the Ferris wheel was eight deep by the time the Acura Sports Car Challenge, the racing highlight of the day, kicked off shortly after lunch.

Fans crowded around the chain-link fence encircling the Grand Prix racecourse and tried to figure out which driver was in what car. They aimed digital cameras and camera phones at the speeding cars and hoped their pictures wouldn't come out blurry.

They drank $5 Bud Lights and ate $5 corn dogs. Afterward, they scrambled to find a clean restroom.

The Grand Prix of St. Petersburg dominated much of downtown Saturday, drawing race junkies and indifferent spectators alike. Even people outside the race course couldn't avoid the carnival atmosphere.

Inside the Grand Prix's viewing area, which sprawled across Beach and Bayshore drives, friends yelled at one another, their hearing impaired, but protected, by neon orange earplugs. Children fell asleep in strollers. Between rows of shaved ice and pretzel stands, fans angled for a good view of the cars.

Outside the racecourse, the scene was no less hectic.

Ticket buyers lined up along First Street SE waiting to get inside while scalpers called out, "Extra tickets!"

At Ceviche Tapas Bar and Restaurant, a small crowd paid a $10 cover charge to enter the Central Avenue hot spot's temporary "race lounge."

The restaurant, which pays the Grand Prix for a view of the racecourse, served mimosas and discounted tapas.

Nichole Quebac, 17, and David Strickland, 20, ignored the cocktails and Spanish finger food. Instead, they sat as close to the racecourse as possible and waited for someone to crash.

They didn't want someone to get hurt. They just thought it would be exciting to see a race car get totaled.

By 1 p.m., they had only seen one driver lose control, but the car merely bounced against the mound of tires hugging the racetrack's concrete barriers.

"It's a day out of the house," said Strickland, shrugging.

A siren went off. Strickland and Quebac perked up.

"Oooooh, there goes the medic van again," Quebac cheered.

At Courigan's Irish Bar on Beach Drive, more than a dozen people gathered for a free view of the track.

The racetrack surrounds the bar, but Grand Prix officials usually hang a red tarp over the fence encircling the course so nonpaying spectators can't see the race. On Saturday, part of the tarp had been removed so race officials could monitor the drivers.

Joey Greene and Vicki Cavallaro wandered over to Courigan's after breakfast to people-watch and stayed for the free show.

Greene buys tickets every year to the final Sunday race, and not the cheap kind. His one-day, $80 admission gets a grandstand seat right near the start-finish line.

"We live such humble lives," said Greene. But the Grand Prix "is exciting. Everything is so loud and you never know what's going to happen.

As cars zoomed by less than 20 feet away, Cavallaro nursed a Bloody Mary and tried to keep the wind from blowing up her dress.

"I am not that into racing," said Cavallaro, of St. Petersburg. "I go where the crowds are and this is the place to be this weekend."

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

Some watch Grand Prix from the best seats on the street 04/05/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 7, 2008 8:02am]
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