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The Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg sets wheels in motion

ST. PETERSBURG — The barricades are blocking streets. Fancy big rigs have delivered the high-powered cars. The green flag is waiting to fly.

It's race week. The Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is back.

Love it or hate it, the season opener for the Indy Car racing calendar showcases St. Petersburg's waterfront to a worldwide audience in 200 countries. Thousands of visitors will spend money at some hotels and restaurants and race events from Friday through Sunday.

As work crews ready the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street course for professional drivers, some downtown roads will close today as the track is sealed.

"It will be a mad circus the next 48 hours," said Tim Ramsberger, general manager of the race. "It's going to be tremendous. The buzz has started."

Chris Steinocher, head of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, agreed.

He has spotted international media and visitors on downtown streets.

While it's hard to estimate how much money the event brings to the city, businesses benefit from race exposure, Steinocher said.

"The eyeballs on TV see St. Pete as a destination," he said. "Other markets in the country would love to have this."

The City Council unanimously approved a three-year contract extension in June to keep the Grand Prix here through 2017.

Still, the popular event has not been without problems.

At times, the race has caused attendance issues for the Salvador Dalí Museum, which sits inside the track. To enter, visitors must buy a race ticket and a museum ticket, discounted to $10.

Race officials, Ramsberger said, have worked with the museum to push visitors to the entrance, adding: "We're continually looking to improve it."

The museum agreed.

"We have more signage to help our visitors this year," said deputy director Kathy White. "We are looking forward to sending as many visitors to the Grand Prix and to the Dalí as possible."

Some downtown residents have mixed views on cars racing through the streets.

Gary Grooms, president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, said the races operate during the day and do not keep people awake like nightclubs blasting loud music.

While the track disrupts businesses and residents in some condo towers, few residents have complained this year, he said.

"If you live here and love St. Petersburg, it makes you feel good when you see it on TV," Grooms said. "If you live downtown, you have to expect noise."

Residents looking for fresh produce, plants and crafts should stay away from downtown. The Saturday Morning Market will not operate this week in the parking lot at Al Lang Field.

City officials also talked to business owners this year to find ways to push crowds to the north end of Beach Drive. Race fans don't typically head that way.

But many residents avoid the shops and restaurants because they fear traffic jams, though empty parking spots are abundant over the three days. The city plans to install flashing signs directing drivers to race events and to shopping areas.

New events at this year's race include go-carts and planes.

Race fans wanting speed can zoom around a go-cart track located near Gate 1 on First Avenue S. The Air Boss air show will also woo fans Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

Ramsberger does have one concern for the weekend — something work crews can't control. Although Florida is the Sunshine State and St. Petersburg is the Sunshine City, Mother Nature's soggy hand doesn't play favorites.

The National Weather Service is predicting a 20 percent chance of rain on Friday and a 30 percent chance of the wet stuff Sunday afternoon.

"It's not going to be a total washout," said meteorologist Nicole Carlisle. "The best chance for rain would be Sunday."

Ramsberger plans to keep his fingers crossed, saying: "Hopefully, Mother Nature will cooperate."

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

>>If you go

Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

What: IndyCar season opener, plus races in other series, including Indy Lights and Pro Mazda

When/where: Friday-Sunday, downtown streets

IndyCar schedule: Friday, practices 11:10 a.m. and 2:40 p.m.; Saturday, practice 10:25 a.m., qualifying 2:05 p.m.; Sunday, warmup 8:45 a.m., race noon

Tickets: Prices range from $20 for ages 12 and younger for Friday and Saturday to $135 for a three-day adult upper-reserved seat. Paddock passes and convenience charges extra.

Details or to buy: Visit gpstpete.com or call (727) 898-4639, ext. 225

.Fast facts

Special events

Thursday: Race and city officials will unveil the Dan Wheldon memorial and Victory Circle Monument on Bayside Drive. The former St. Petersburg resident died in a 2011 crash while racing in Las Vegas. His wife, Susie, will wave the green flag to start the race on Sunday.

The Illuminated Night Parade kicks off at 7:30 Thursday with floats, beads, bands and fireworks. It ends at Vinoy park.

For more information: gpstpete.com

The Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg sets wheels in motion 03/19/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 20, 2013 5:36pm]

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