Honda has unexpectedly pulled out as sponsor of the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, a stunning move that has race organizers scrambling for a new one just five months before the race.
Honda, which had sponsored the race for nine years, pulled out last week, race president Tim Ramsberger announced Friday.
"To say we're surprised is an understatement," Ramsberger said. "It's a tough thing to experience but I don't think it'll damper the race. It won't affect us going forward."
The three-day event, celebrating its 10th anniversary in March, attracts drivers and fans from across the globe. And the national broadcast, which city officials call a three-hour commercial for St. Petersburg, reaches millions of viewers, race organizers said.
So why did Honda back out?
Ramsberger said he didn't know. The company didn't return a call from the Tampa Bay Times.
The Grand Prix is now courting potential sponsors, Ramsberger said, declining to identify what he called "several interested parties." Naming rights are worth between $8 million to $10 million in exposure from the ABC broadcast alone, he said.
Beyond monetary issues, changing sponsors presents a logistical challenge for Grand Prix organizers. Shirts, for example, must be ordered in mid February.
"I'm not worried about deadlines," Ramsberger said. "I'm confident new partners will step up."
St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster said he's optimistic about the fate of the race, which annually fills local hotels and restaurants.
"Sponsors come and go," Foster said. "No one's married to Honda. We're married to the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg."
Another major bay area sporting event, the PGA tournament at Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club, went a year without a title sponsor before Valspar Corp., a global paint and coatings manufacturer based in Minneapolis, announced last month that it will be the title sponsor.
It is scheduled for March 13-16 at Innisbrook's Copperhead Course in Palm Harbor.