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Win-win for Open Wheel, St. Petersburg

It's a go again. Or so it would seem.

Postponed in December, revived in January but seemingly fated for oblivion by February, the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg survived another threat Wednesday when a U.S. bankruptcy judge awarded sanctioning rights to a group that hopes to race here this spring.

Judge Frank Otte accepted Open Wheel Racing Series' $3.2-million bid for all of Championship Auto Racing Team's assets, in effect preserving the road- and street-racing series. The Indy Racing League had bid $13.5-million for the most valuable assets, notably rights to the Grand Prix of Long Beach, and would have canceled most of the races on the CART schedule.

Otte ruled for Open Wheel because he thought the IRL bid could be devalued by possible litigation from cities in Canada, Mexico and the United States that lost events. Open Wheel estimated in court papers such litigation could be as much as $30-million, according to the Associated Press.

Open Wheel, comprised of CART team owners Gerald Forsythe, Paul Gentilozzi and Kevin Kalkhoven, has planned to run the series as Champ Car since proposing to buy CART in August for around $7-million. The group figured to complete the transaction cheaper and easier by allowing it to fall into bankruptcy court. But IRL president Tony George, citing in a letter his desire to create a "unified, market-driven North American open-wheel series," opted last week to bid.

Gentilozzi had expressed interest last month in eventually merging Champ Car with the IRL, but antagonism between the parties during the bankruptcy case suggests that is no longer a strong possibility.

In the broad scheme, Otte's decision maintains the split in North American open-wheel racing that occurred when George broke from CART and founded the oval-racing IRL in 1996. Locally, it means St. Petersburg's race through downtown streets survives.

Still, St. Petersburg general manager Tim Ramsberger was subdued.

"I want to be guarded," he said. "We don't want to get too excited, but we feel a whole lot better than we did (Tuesday)."

Open Wheel is to finalize the purchase next week. The IRL has not indicated if it will appeal. A lengthy appeal would further delay preparations for an Open Wheel schedule slated to begin April 18 at Long Beach and run here May 16.

A release from Open Wheel said "the final 2004 race schedule, television plans and team, driver, and sponsorship announcements will be forthcoming throughout the next two months."

The City Council must approve Open Wheel's wish to run here because promotional rights have changed hands twice since Dover Motorsports _ through subsidiary Grand Prix Association of Long Beach _ assigned its contract back to CART in December.

Council chairman James Bennett said he doesn't foresee much opposition. But with so many unanswered questions and past disappointments, he was reluctant to express too much excitement.

"Are we just going to be heartbroken again?" Bennett said.

Mayor Rick Baker, an enthusiastic supporter of the Grand Prix, was ecstatic about the news and said he is optimistic about the city's chances of playing host to a race.

"I think it's a very real possibility," he said. "Maybe even a probability."

Baker plans to meet with Open Wheel officials in the next few weeks.

Rick Mussett, St. Petersburg's development administrator, said it wouldn't take much time for the city to prepare for its second Grand Prix. The only question is how long Open Wheel would need to organize it.

"The question may be can they do it this year or are they going to have to wait until next year," Mussett said.

Council member Bill Foster has concerns about trying to put on a successful event in such a short time.

"I don't think either the city or Open Wheel Racing can risk failure at a time when neither of us are prepared," he said. "There's too much at stake right now for both of us."

However, Foster said he would vote to support a May race if it was his only option.

Ramsberger said he first will meet with Open Wheel representatives to finalize the date, then begin working on staffing, operational issues and budgets. Some downtown event conflicts also must be resolved. Ramsberger hopes to have ticket and sponsor announcements by the end of February.

"We have to have conversations with Open Wheel and get a comfort level to come out of the blocks as quickly as we can," he said. "Obviously, we believe we have to be announced into the marketplace by no later than end of February. We'll be ready to move very quickly."

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in the report.