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A sort of homecoming for 2 standout drivers

Jack Baldwin is a 42-year-old rookie of the year. Lee Perkinson is finally arriving, but in a series that has dead-ended. Race drivers do travel in circles.

Baldwin, a Tampa native, and St. Petersburg resident Perkinson are both racing in this weekend's GTE St. Petersburg Grand Prix _ Baldwin in the featured Trans-Am race, and Perkinson in the Super Vee.

In his first full season in the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) series, Baldwin is sixth in the point standings and smiling at the future.

"I think our day is coming," said Baldwin, who now lives in Marietta, Ga. "I'm looking forward to 1991."

What may be a happy new year for Baldwin is one of mystery right now for Perkinson. While he's hot (ranked third among Super Vee drivers), the race is not. Volkswagen is pulling its sponsorship, and the 20-year-old series featuring Volkswagen-powered open-wheeled cars will end after its run in St. Petersburg.

Perkinson, 29, might have

moved on to another series anyway, but now he's forced to seek new employment. This weekend, Perkinson will wrap one palm around the wheel and use the other to shake hands, looking part Al Unser, part Lawton Chiles.

"We'll be campaigning and talking to factory-backed teams," Perkinson said of his plans. "Then we'll go to the IMSA (International Motor Sports Association) race next week (in San Diego) Where there is an opportunity, I'll go."

Opportunity is what Baldwin grabbed. A successful IMSA driver _ he is tied for fifth on the all-time victory list with 27 _ Baldwin and his racing team found themselves passed by progress. He said IMSA rules changed and cars became more high-tech, more expensive. "We weren't competitive and it became hard to justify our presence to our sponsors," Baldwin said. "We decided to go where we're more welcome and more competitive."

Welcome SCCA and its Trans-Am competition. Instead of spending $3-million to $5-million to compete in IMSA, Baldwin said racing in the SCAA cost between $500,000 and $1.2-million.

That still is a lot of money for a man whose career began with drag races on the back streets of Tampa in the early 1960s. Baldwin slowly moved up the racing ranks, eventually establishing himself in IMSA.

He hooked up with the McCall-Sheehy Motorsports Team after helping in an emergency two years ago at the 24 Hours of Daytona. Leaky exhaust fumes had knocked out the team's driver; Baldwin visited the pit area, offered to help, and was soon driving.

The team hung on to finish second, and owner Buz McCall became impressed with Baldwin, who eventually joined the team.

In the SCCA this year, Baldwin has driven his Camaro Z28 to nine top-10 finishes in 14 races, including a third place in Detroit.

Now established in his new series, Baldwin anticipates a better 1991 season. But first, a stop back in the Tampa Bay area. "All year, I've looked forward to this race," he said.

Perkinson also looks forward to driving in front of family and friends. Unlike Baldwin, he has raced the St. Petersburg Grand Prix before, but he wasn't running at the finish. Car trouble has prevented Perkinson from finishing all five of his starts.

But hope is high in 1990. Perkinson has finished every race he's started this year. The reason, he said, is better equipment.

"It's funny how things go hand in hand," Perkinson said. "They say you don't run on gas, you run on cash."

Perkinson's budget this year is his highest ever at $180,000, although that includes the recent sale of his backup car. Mike Kemp, a local electric contractor, has provided much of the backing, including money and the use of his shop building.

Money makes the car go around, said Parkinson, who has been around himself in a 10-year career. He grew up in St. Petersburg, moved away as a teen-ager, and eventually landed in Europe, racing in Italy and England. He came home in 1987 and continued his career.

Success arrived this year. Perkinson has placed in the top six in all eight races so far, including two seconds. He's running third in the point standings and could climb into second with a win this weekend.

Perkinson said the difference between him and the drivers in front of him are the cars. "They have newer cars," he said. His is an '86.

That thought has Perkinson coveting a spot with an established, well-financed racing team, either racing Trans-Ams or IMSA cars.

If things work out, Perkinson might be racing against Baldwin next year, maybe dueling side-by-side, around the turns, down the straightaways, around the circle.

TICKETS

Available at participating Publix supermarkets and St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce. A three-day pass, including admission to the paddock, is $40. Friday-only admission is $15, Saturday is $20, and Sunday is $20. A paddock pass is $10 extra with a daily ticket. Tickets purchased at the gate are $5 more. To order tickets by phone, call 823-8000 (Pinellas) or 229-800 (Hillsborough.)

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