ST. PETERSBURG — As IndyCar officials and race promoters gathered Tuesday for their annual winter meeting at the Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf Club, their message was clear: The city has reached landmark status for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
"Landmark. That's a good word for it," said Curt Cavin, an IndyCar spokesman. "This has been one of our most consistent races. It's the right time of year, the right location, the demographics, the downtown."
For the seventh straight year, the city's Grand Prix will kick off IndyCar's 17-race season. This time it's over the March 10-12 weekend.
The earlier race dates last year sparked controversy as City Council members and local waterfront venues complained that the late notice interfered with previously arranged events. But, after some grumbling, the council approved an extension of Green Savoree Racing Promotion's contract through 2020.
That bad blood has long since dissipated, said D. Kevin Savoree, the firm's co-owner and president.
"That got resolved. We're excited. The competition is going to be incredible," Savoree said.
And the earlier March dates — a few weeks earlier than the first 11 years of the race — works in the Grand Prix's favor, he said.
"The weather is just … Florida. We're thrilled with the date," he said.
Last year, the Salvador Dali Museum, the Mahaffey Theater and other venues including the Vinoy had to juggle their schedules to accommodate the change in the race's schedule. Those businesses are happy that the race agreement has set an early March weekend as the race date for the next several years, Mayor Rick Kriseman said. "It makes it easier for everyone. And, frankly, it makes it easier for visitors to plan ahead to buy plane tickets and get a hotel room," he said.
Kriseman said the business community had warmed to the race, which has drawn about 160,000 people annually in recent years.
A city study concluded that the race generates about $48 million a year in economic impact.
"You see signs and banners all over. You didn't necessarily see that 10 years ago," the mayor said.
In 2005, former Mayor Rick Baker, a possible opponent of Kriseman's in this year's election, helped bring the Grand Prix to the city.
Savoree agreed that the business community has become more supportive in recent years. He said several local sponsors of the race would be announced in the coming weeks and said the mayor's office campaign of "Embrace the Race" has been effective in building support among downtown businesses.
Kriseman said he wants people to know that even with the race course transforming parts of downtown, businesses will be open and ready to handle the crowds.
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"When the race is happening, downtown is open for business," Kriseman said.
Contact Charlie Frago at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.