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FLORIDA GRAND PRIX OF ST. PETERSBURG // BACK ON THE STREETS

Tom Begley and Bud Stanner don't fashion themselves anybodys knights in shining armor. Begley is just a guy who held onto a dream, and Stanner is just a senior corporate vice president who saw an opportunity in what had been a eyesore for St. Petersburg.

Yet, it is because of Begley and Stanner that the Florida Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, left for dead six years ago because of financial problems, is back on the streets of St. Petersburg.

Not only is it back, but it may be better than ever. In addition to landing Kash n' Karry as a title sponsor, Stanner's company, International Management Group, is pouring loads of money and resources into the event and surrounding it with activities that it hopes will turn the grand prix into more than just a race.

"They take it to new levels," said driver Tom Kendall, the reigning champion of the SCCA Trans-Am series which will again headline the grand prix. "Whatever you want to call it, marketing or whatever, they do a good job of putting their muscle into it to ensure it will be there."

During its first six years in St. Petersburg, when it was run on a street course near the Bayfront Center, the grand prix struggled to endear itself to the city. Nearby residents and merchants complained about the noise and the inconvenience it caused. New organizers ran the event seemingly every year. The lack of consistency hurt the race's ability to attract sponsors, which ultimately led to its demise after the 1990 race.

But Begley, a local entrepreneur, believed that the race could be successful _ so much so that he said he borrowed "hundreds of thousands of dollars" from family and friends to get the race out of bankruptcy, buy the rights to it and negotiate a deal with the city to stage it again.

"If you would have told me back then how much money it would take (to put on the race again), I wouldn't have done it," Begley said with a chuckle. "Some of those people have been paid back and some know that their money is still good. None of this, though, would have been possible without their help."

Stanner's company, IMG, listened to SCCA president Dan Greenwood's suggestion that it consider helping to bring back the race. Then it took over where Begley couldn't.

IMG, based in Cleveland, runs SCCA Trans-Am races in Detroit and Cleveland in conjunction with IndyCar World Series races in those cities.

Last year the Cleveland race drew 109,919 fans and the Detroit event attracted 87,500.

"They have a large staff and well-trained people, and they tend to do a very good job," SCCA official Greg Rubenstein said. "We've seen consistent growth at all IMG events."

IMG has the St. Petersburg race on far more stable footing than in years past. First and perhaps most important, it landed Kash n' Karry as a title sponsor, one of more than 17 companies kicking in money for the event.

IMG is also anteing up. According to Stanner, IMG is spending more than $2.5-million on the race, with a large chunk going toward promoting the event. The race will be televised nationally on The Nashville Network (TNN).

The plan is to make the grand prix a family affair. The location has been changed to a 1.6-mile street course around the ThunderDome where noise and traffic won't annoy businesses and residents as much as before.

And there will be more to see. In addition to races involving the Trans-Am series, World Challenge series, Barber Dodge series, Spec Racer Pro series and the Dodge Neon Celebrity race, there will be an expo area with hospitality tents and a 5K run/walk.

Still, it's not guaranteed to be a success. Stanner said the race needs to sell at least 25,000 grandstand tickets in order to make it successful, something IMG couldn't do with a similar event in Dallas last year. IMG bought the rights to the race, but canceled it because no sponsor would touch it (it was scheduled for the same day as a Dallas Cowboys' game). Within a year of obtaining the Dallas race, IMG sold it.

Stanner maintains IMG won't do the same thing with the St. Petersburg race should it encounter difficulties.

"The difference is the cooperation from the city and the sponsorship interest that we've gotten (in St. Petersburg)," Stanner said.

Still, the St. Petersburg race is already presenting some challenges for IMG. Without giving a specific figure, Stanner said ticket sales have been slow. "I don't know where we are," Stanner said, "but we are nowhere near where we have to be in order to be profitable."

Regardless, IMG is banking that this area will eventually warm back up to the grand prix.

"We're going through promoter palpitations right now because we need to sell more tickets," said Stanner. "We have the support of the city and the local businesses. Now we need to get the fans' support."

FLORIDA GRAND PRIX FACTS

Where: 1.6-mile, 8-turn street circuit around the ThunderDome in St. Petersburg.

Distance: 100 miles

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