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World Challenge may be finished at fairgrounds

The World Challenge auto race may be leaving the Florida State Fairgrounds after just three years. Special Events International, the Tampa-based company that organizes the race, is nearing the end of its three-year contract with the publicly owned fairgrounds.

"They've told us that they cannot afford to continue putting on the race under the present contract," said Frank Ross, executive director of the fairgrounds authority.

The racing group has asked the authority to become financial partners in the race, but Ross said neither he nor authority board members are willing to take on that risk.

A formal decision has not been made. But if the race leaves the fairgrounds, it could end a three-year rivalry between Tampa and St. Petersburg racing events.

The World Challenge of Tampa, which features GTP prototype cars, last ran Sept. 28-30, and is sanctioned by the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA), also based in Tampa. The GTE St. Petersburg Grand Prix features Trans-Am cars and is sanctioned by the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). It will be held again Nov. 2-4.

The future of the Tampa race was discussed Monday at a quarterly meeting of the fairgrounds authority. Race promoter Scott Riley and IMSA owners Jeff Parker and Mike Cone could not be reached later for comment.

But Ross said the race's future looks dim. A formal decision wasn't made because of legal notice requirements and because two board members were absent, he said. But Doyle Carlton Jr., chairman of the fairgrounds race committee, told the promoters they'd better look for another site, "so as not to string them along," Ross said.

Special Events International had asked the fairgrounds authority to take on the operational expenses of the race, in return for $100,000 cash and concession, catering and merchandise rights, Ross said. Special Events would continue to handle ticket sales and sponsorships.

Ross said his staff figured the operational expenses would be at least $255,000, without any guarantee that other income would be sufficient to cover the costs.

"We'd have $250,000 hanging out there in the breeze. If the breeze gets damp, we'd be taking a major loss," he said. "I don't believe that the board is going to stick their necks out that far."

Ross said the authority also has decided the race isn't popular or valuable enough to be worth all the trouble. "It's a tremendous amount of work that has to be done at a time when we have to be busy with other events," he said, adding that the fairgrounds has had to turn away other lucrative events because of conflicts with the race.

The race also has brought continuous complaints from neighbors about the noise. Ross said Carlton asked his staff to weigh those complaints against the financial benefits to the community and to the fairgrounds.

"If this had been a major event" with a significant contribution to the fairgrounds and to the community at large, "I don't think we would have been uncomfortable asking the neighbors to be tolerant," Ross said.

As it was, paid attendance during last month's race was less than 10,000, he said.

"The bottom line is they just have not sold enough tickets to hold the race, pay all the bills and make it profitable for themselves or for us."

"It's the economics that have done it in," said Barbara Merritt, a fairgrounds neighbor who attended Monday's meeting. "Just the same, I'm not sorry to see it go."