ST. PETERSBURG — The Grand Prix of St. Petersburg returns starting Thursday with its 650-horsepower engines, European swagger and fist-bumping machismo.
But this year, race organizers and the event's chief cheerleader, Mayor Rick Baker, are using another term to describe the weekend car race: stimulative.
"It has a great stimulating effect," said Baker, who was instrumental in landing the IndyCar series race in 2005. "To have something like this coming in at this time — creating jobs, helping business — is a really positive thing."
As with any event, it's difficult to measure its impact on the local economy. Some things, like television exposure and mentions in worldwide press, are hard to financially quantify. And even race expenditures can be difficult to calculate.
Would the person, for instance, who spends $100 at the race this weekend spent $100 eating out at the Pier instead?
But Baker says the weekend promises an uptick in hotel bookings, a few busy nights for downtown businesses and critical help for local contractors setting up the 14-turn, 1.8-mile downtown track.
Russ Bond, general manager at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort in St. Petersburg, had been concerned the state of the economy might affect race weekend bookings at his hotel.
But by Tuesday, the hotel was sold out for race weekend.
"If you would have asked me six or eight weeks ago what I kind of saw in the crystal ball, I was very concerned about our status," Bond said. "We have been used to selling out way in advance. We have now sold out, but it was closer to the date. In the big scheme of things, that's fine."
Race organizers use local contractors for race setup, and use the Mahaffey Theater's management company to help organize food vendors. The company that erects the track's grandstands, Nussli, just opened an office in Tampa.
"At a time when folks need jobs and so on, it's a great feeling to know that we've contributed to the local economy," said Kevin Savoree, managing director of race organizer Andretti Green Promotions.
Ray Smith, owner of Smith Fence Co. in Clearwater, is employing 47 people to set up the concrete barriers, wire fencing and bridge overpasses on the downtown racing circuit.
They'll be there on race day to repair the walls in case there's an accident, and to begin the weeklong process of taking everything down.
"This is a big deal for us," said Smith, 56, who has been working the race since 2007 and previously was associated with St. Petersburg car races going back to 1985. "We're doing four months of work in six weeks. We're supporting 47 people, their wives and their kids."
Race here to stay
Love it or hate it, the grand prix isn't going anywhere.
In 2008, Baker extended the race's contract with the city through 2013. This year — Baker's last as mayor — he said he hopes to tack on additional year to keep the race through 2014.
Savoree said this week he is open to extending the race an additional year.
As part of its agreement with Andretti Green, the city provides up to $150,000 of in-kind services race weekend. That subsidy mainly comes in the form of police and fire personnel hours.
If the cost exceeds $150,000, Andretti Green reimburses the city, said the city's liaison with the race, Kevin Dunn.
"Compared to a lot of the things we do, it's a very good investment," Baker said.