Thursday, June 21, 2018
Sports

Firestone becomes title sponsor of St. Petersburg IndyCar race

ST. PETERSBURG — The IndyCar race set to roar along the downtown waterfront for the 10th time in March has a new name: the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

One month after longtime sponsor Honda suddenly dropped out, race promoters said Wednesday they had a new backer with the tire company. Tickets for the March 28-30 event will go on sale Dec. 1.

"We always felt confident we had a very valuable property," race president Tim Ramsberger said. "Firestone has been with us since the beginning. They're familiar with our event, and they see the value in the event."

The company, which also sponsors the Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway, has for years held naming rights to the St. Petersburg circuit's first turn.

Headquartered in Nashville, Firestone is owned by Japan-based Bridgestone, the world's largest tire and rubber firm. The conglomerate employs 143,000 people and posted revenues of nearly $38 billion last year.

How much money Firestone paid to expand its branding rights, or even how many years the company will sponsor the St. Petersburg event, were kept confidential as part of the deal, Ramsberger said.

Also uncertain is why Honda dropped its backing after nine years as the lead sponsor. The company is sponsoring similar races next year in Alabama, Ohio and Ontario. Representatives did not return messages Wednesday.

Though attendance cooled during the recession, more than 125,000 people showed up for the three-day event earlier this year, up from 65,000 in 2005, Ramsberger said.

St. Petersburg boosters call the nationally televised event, which draws drivers and race fans from across the world, a three-hour commercial for the city's waterfront.

Though Ramsberger said visitors paid for 27,000 room-nights at local hotels for what organizers call "the world's fastest spring break party," other local businesses said they had mixed results from this year's cloudy race weekend.

Drivers on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street circuit here fly past the Salvador Dali Museum and down the runway of Albert Whitted Airport, with last year's winners pushing an average speed of 83 miles an hour for 110 laps.

The race is the opener for the IndyCar series, known for fast-paced, open-cockpit races like the Indianapolis 500. Canadian racer James Hinchcliffe, 26, beat defending champion Helio Castroneves at the race here in March by 1.09 seconds.

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