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Fans' optimism can't overcome soggy day at Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — They came sporting ponchos and baseball caps, sharing umbrellas and hovering together under awnings with one collective thought: Stay away, rain.

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But the clear, cloudless blue skies that made Saturday a perfect day for the sixth-annual Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg didn't last — bringing the downtown race to a soppy conclusion Sunday afternoon.

Heavy thunderstorms blew in less than two hours before the last race of the weekend, the IndyCar series, was scheduled to be broadcast nationally on ABC.

That race was postponed until 10 a.m. today. General admission is free, and it's set to be shown on ESPN2. But there is still a chance of rain, Bay News 9 forecasts.

Longtime attendees Preston and Diane Kline of New Port Richey had grandstand tickets for that race and came prepared with umbrellas.

"But we'll be running for cover here soon," Preston said as the rain started to get heavier around 2 p.m.

The Klines, who said they have been to the last several Grand Prix races, said a little rain wasn't going to keep them away.

"I'm a NASCAR fan, but racing is racing and you can't get any closer than this," Preston said.

While many fans tried to stick it out and huddled under parking garage overhangs or in private tents set up around the circuit, hundreds started making their way directly to the exit gates when the rain picked up.

They sloshed through inches of water that pooled up on parking lots and sidewalks. Suddenly, the roar of powerful engines was replaced with booming thunder.

Fans spilled out onto downtown streets headed for places like nearby Midtown Sundries, where they stacked up inside the front doors waiting for a seat.

Midtown Sundries general manager Mark Kott said the restaurant was "quite slow" between noon and 1 p.m., but started picking up when the first drops fell.

Still, the restaurant hadn't had the same surge in sales this race weekend.

"We've seen an uptick all weekend, but nothing compared to years past," he said.

But sales at Fresco's Waterfront Bistro, where weather often dictates the number of diners, were up overall for the weekend, said on-duty manager Thomas Harrison.

"We really did have one of the better Saturdays than we have had in a long time," Harrison said, adding that Friday night's festivities also drew big crowds downtown.

With the Andretti Autosport and Honda teams staying at the Hampton Inn and Suites on Beach Drive NE, the 91-room hotel was filled to capacity over the weekend, said general manager Karl Johansson.

Despite that, the lobby was hushed early Sunday afternoon.

"All the race guys get up early and they don't come back until late, so while everybody's out and about, it's pretty quiet," Johansson said.

Though they knew the rain was coming, fans were still buying tickets at a walk-up window on First Avenue S around 1:30 p.m.

Zachary Violette of Apollo Beach was attending his first Grand Prix with his mom.

Clad in a clear poncho with Mickey Mouse on the back, the 10-year-old who likes "fast cars" said he was hoping to catch a glimpse of Danica Patrick before the rain came.

And one more thing.

"I want to see a crash."

Fans' optimism can't overcome soggy day at Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg 03/28/10 [Last modified: Monday, March 29, 2010 3:42pm]
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