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St. Petersburg council pumps the brakes on Grand Prix

Juan Pablo Montoya wins the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in March. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
Published Sep. 11, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — The Grand Prix of St. Petersburg has been held since 2005, but a combustible City Council meeting Thursday raised questions about whether the popular IndyCar event is, at least politically, running out of gas.

Council members questioned why Green Savoree Racing Promotions won't open its books so they can see how much money is being made from the annual three-day event. They asked why the city can't get more advance notice of when the race will be held each year. And they pondered whether the city had perhaps outgrown the event that drew 160,000 to the waterfront in March.

The race promoters were even compared to the Tampa Bay Rays — not a good omen considering the long stalemate between the council and that Major League Baseball franchise.

Thursday's line of questioning from the council ticked off race promoters, especially when several members suggested putting the contract out for bid when it expires in 2017.

"Good luck with that," replied Kevin Savoree, co-founder of the Grand Prix's promotion company.

The sparring threw into question how the council might vote next month on Mayor Rick Kriseman's plans to extend Green Savoree's contract by three years.

Council members have expressed their displeasure at next year's race being moved to March 11-13, two weeks earlier than this year's event. So have waterfront institutions like the Salvador Dalí Museum and the Mahaffey Theater.

Council member Karl Nurse engineered Thursday's meeting with the purpose to delve into details of the city's contract with Green Savoree.

It didn't take long before things got tense.

Council member Jim Kennedy compared the promoters to the Rays, saying he had no idea if they made money or what their risk was.

"Are we getting the best deal?" Kennedy asked.

The response from the promoters was succinct: Try and do better.

"If you guys want us, you want us," Savoree said. "If you don't want us, we understand. This is business. And over the years, promoters around this country and around this world have come and gone like yo-yos."

City staffers backed the promoters, saying not many groups exist that can pull off a complicated event like the Grand Prix.

But council members bristled when given what some perceived as an ultimatum.

"I hate to get the scare tactics," said Wengay Newton.

City development administrator Alan DeLisle said the mayor wasn't going to seek other bids. And any bad blood risked killing an event that brings in millions of dollars at the cost of a relatively modest $150,000 city subsidy to promoters, he said.

"You don't want quality to walk away," DeLisle said.

The city is considering an economic impact study to determine how much money the race generates in the community, DeLisle said, asserting that similar events around the country net tens of millions.

Some council members said they were satisfied by the promoter's explanation about why the race will be earlier next year. In 2016, the third weekend in March is the popular 12 Hours of Sebring race. The following weekend is Easter. The Mahaffey Theater had a conflict in the first weekend of April, Savoree said.

But others indicated they were willing to play hardball. Council member Amy Foster said that the city has progressed in visibility in the past decade and now has its own momentum. She said she wasn't sure the Grand Prix was "the only thing" that made the city relevant these days.

"I do feel, frankly, that we're a different city than when this race started," she said.

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.

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