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Race officials must act fast

Published Aug. 27, 2005

Speed is of the essence for the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Not the speed of cars tentatively scheduled to race May 16, but the speed in which Open Wheel Racing, city officials and the local organizing committee can finalize details for the second race.

If the Open Wheel Racing sanctioning body is satisfied the race can be organized in a "timely manner," co-owner Paul Gentilozzi said Thursday, the race will become the new circuit's Florida niche. If not, its future becomes tenuous.

"It's not our plan to go dark," Gentilozzi said during a teleconference. "When you go dark, you lose a great deal of momentum. We're going to meet with (Grand Prix general manager Tim Ramsberger) and do whatever we can to make this successful. St. Petersburg is a particularly complex event because of all the activities that happen down there.

"We would, of course, like to take advantage of the winter population and have it earlier in the spring. But this year, it won't work. We're going to make a judgment whether it can be successful. I know that doesn't give you a definitive answer. But if we can make the right business deal, we'll be there."

Open Wheel was awarded the assets of the defunct Championship Auto Racing Teams on Wednesday in U.S. bankruptcy court, bidding $3.2-million and offering to pay CART's liabilities. Among those assets are the rights to sanction races in the United States, Mexico and Canada.

The rival Indy Racing League bid $13.5-million for some assets but lost, in part, because it would not assume those liabilities. The St. Petersburg Grand Prix was not among the assets the IRL sought, meaning the race likely would have folded if the IRL prevailed.

Ramsberger has been proactive in speeding Open Wheel's startup, submitting plans and a budget to the principals a month ago. He also has provided updates to former CART representatives who now work for Open Wheel and is scheduled to meet with more series officials in town next week.

But that might mean nothing unless the series can find a compromise with Shakespeare in the Park, which is scheduled to run near the course at Demens Landing from April 16-May 16. Ramsberger has said for several weeks any conflicts could be resolved, however.

He estimated the course would be vacant three hours before the 8 p.m. presentation of Much Ado About Nothing.

"I don't think there is a hard and fast conflict," Ramsberger said. "There are some concerns on their end, and we're being sensitive and respectful to that. Their concern is mostly the Friday-Saturday-Sunday of our race weekend."

Because Open Wheel did not purchase the sanctioning rights to CART's Miami race, St. Petersburg represents its lone market in the Southeast.

Kevin Kalkhoven, who with Gentilozzi and Gerald Forsythe make up the Open Wheel ownership group, said the series will announce final race and television schedules immediately after the expected Feb. 12 closing date on CART's assets.

Though the bidding war for CART's remnants between Open Wheel and IRL president Tony George became intense, Gentilozzi said their relationship remains cordial. Unlike when Open Wheel first proposed to buy out CART, however, there is no wish to merge operations between the street- and road-racing Champ Car series and the oval-racing IRL.

"No part of our five-year plan includes any kind of integration," Kalkhoven said.

But it includes St. Petersburg. And in an offseason in which the race has been postponed from its original late February date, picked over and threatened with extinction, that's progress.