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CART ready to run in St. Pete

The students and faculty of USF-St. Petersburg are used to noise.

With the campus situated mere yards from the runway of Albert Whitted Airport, the sound of helicopter blades and propeller-driven plane engines have become a permanent part of the atmosphere.

But for three days in February, the thunder of aircraft will be replaced by the controlled violence of turbo-charged racing engines, as the city plays host to the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

The race weekend is scheduled for Feb. 21-23, 2003 and will be run by the Championship Auto Racing Teams series, CART for short, which is a premier international division of Indy-style, open wheeled race cars.

The St. Petersburg course and race will be run by Dover Motorsports, a company that owns several tracks, including street courses, open wheel venues and NASCAR ovals.

Planning for the event has been underway for about a year. On August 14, members of St. Petersburg city government and Dover Motorsports officials held a conference to reveal complete news of the event to media and guests.

And now with just six months remaining until the event, attendees and St. Petersburg residents have been given a better idea of what to expect, including the ultimate result of the race on the Tampa Bay area.

The Impact

St. Petersburg mayor Rick Baker has been thrilled about the approaching grand prix for several months. His excitement was again noticeable in the St. Petersburg Times coverage of his appearance at the Aug. 14 news conference.

“It’s hard to believe that in just a few months from now, the best open wheel racers in the world will be running on the streets behind me,” Baker said.

It seems the only thing that could surpass Baker’s excitement for the race itself is the excitement he must feel at St. Petersburg’s potential for a large economic gain from the event.

Thomas Begley, general manager for the grand prix, said that the numbers are hard to estimate, the weekend will generate as many as 20,000 hotel nights, and upwards of $30 million toward the local economy.

Begley said domestic distribution of the television rights for the race have not yet been finalized. He said there will, however, be a broadcast of the event in 190 countries, with an estimated viewership of 48 million people.

Begley said one of the goals of the event is to sell the city to the world.

“The idea here is that the image projected of the market worldwide is going to help economic development and tourism,” Begley said.

Begley said the estimates for success and the race itself are patterned after the grand prix in Long Beach, California, which is regarded as one of CART’s most successful events. A common feature St. Petersburg has with the Long Beach race is a striking waterfront setting.

The race in Long Beach, Begley said, has had a reputation of being difficult on locals. As is the nature of a street course grand prix, area surface roads are closed to form the racing circuit. This, Begley said, can create gridlock and hurt businesses.

But, Begley said, one of the benefits of the St. Petersburg course is that local traffic should flow at a near-normal pace.

“The beauty of the course really is that it doesn’t prevent anybody from getting to their residence or business,” Begley said. “That’s difficult to do when designing a racecourse.”

The Race Weekend

While the race takes place on Sunday, the race weekend begins Friday and includes practice, qualifying and support races. Tickets can be purchased for all three days or for individual days. The prices range from the $20 paddock pass to the $695 club package.

In addition to the action on the track, Begley said the race weekend is designed to provide patrons with a complete entertainment experience, and includes an expo area, family area, concerts and X-sports demonstrations.

“It’s not just a race,” Begley said. “For the entire family, we have an entertainment experience to come back to.”

Dover Motorsports estimates there will be 100,000 visitors during the three-day period. Begley said traffic and crowd control problems are currently in the discussion process. One of the ideas, Begley said, is to use Tropicana Field’s parking lot, located about a mile from the edge of the race course. Shuttles will be used to ferry patrons to their gates. Begley said race planners are using past events in St. Petersburg as examples on handling a large audience.

“The Tall Ships (display in June) would have probably been a dry run of how we do ours,” he said.

AND WHAT ABOUT THE RACE?

The Cars

For all of you out there with a piston for a heart and gasoline in the veins, the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is a display of some of the best in automotive engineering. Unlike their Indy Racing League counterparts, the CART cars run a turbo-charger, making them substantially more powerful.

The CART cars will produce somewhere in the neighborhood of 800 horsepower, roughly equal to their NASCAR cousins. The CART cars, however, weigh much less and sit lower than their stock car equivalents, providing them with faster acceleration, better handling and a higher top speed.

As with any form of racing, all the engineering in the world is useless when a driver is out of control. The winner of the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will run smooth and consistent laps. Shifting and braking with perfection are vital, as poorly handled equipment is easily broken on a street course.

The track layout

The racing course in St. Petersburg is 1.78 miles in length with 14 turns, and sits snugly along the bayfront.

The main straightaway runs down a runway of Albert Whitted Airport. Begley said a new taxiway will be constructed adjacent to the runway, which will serve as a pit road. A clockwise lap around the course will take the racer onto 1st Street, adjacent to the northwest corner of the USF-St. Petersburg campus. The track loops around, runs along the waterfront and back into the airport. Located inside the track are the Bayfront Center and Al Lang Field.

Begley said the track was designed by CART president and CEO Christopher Pook, one of the world’s leading designers. Begley said Pook designed the track in one day from a tourist brochure.

In addition to the new taxiway/pit lane, Begley said the runway/main straightaway will have to be repaved. In addition, the surface streets used in the race will need new pavement, done by the city.

The track from a racer’s perspective

And how is the “raceability” of the track? The main characteristic of note is the track’s lengthy straightaways that run into tight, sharp corners.

While the long straightaways are impressive and very fast, a driver on a street course looks to the slower sections of the course to pass an opponent. The driver who is better on the brake, better shifting and maybe with a little more guts will win the race into the slow corners.

This is a tricky proposition in another way. A missed shift, locked brakes or too fast of an entry into the turn can all spell disaster. Consistent mistakes may also break equipment well before the end of the race.

A quick trip around the track shows the driver that the main straightaway is fast, with a slow, sharp turn 1, where passing will occur. The straightaway down 1st Street, culminating in turn 4 is another tough breaking zone.

Turns 5 through 9, while maybe not the best for passing, will be technically difficult for the driver. The smoothest racer will do the best here, and a good exit off of Turn 9 is vital.

The Turn 9 exit sets up along a sweeping straightaway, where a good run and solid braking will lead to a pass in the near-90 degree Turn 10.

Turn 10 is another important spot as it sets up the run to the best area for passing on the track. Turns 13 and 14, which together make up a hairpin, 180 degree corner, will be at the same time treacherous and tight, where a driver walks the fine line between entering the turn too hard and going too soft. A mistake will hurt the drivers’ speed on the long straightaway back to the start/finish line and will cost positions.

We’ll have to wait until the race begins to know for sure, but it seems the track will provide drivers with solid passing opportunities and a strong challenge.

Tips for attending

First-time race fans should always expect an interesting and unique experience. But there are several things to keep in mind.

Firstly, race cars are loud. For young children and those with sensitive ears, some form of protection may be in order.

When it comes to seating, higher is sometimes better in racing, as sitting near the track subjects a fan to dirt and grime, and the occasional heat from a burning car.

As for viewing the race, the first-time fan must be wary of the nature of a street course. Unlike an oval track, a fan on a street course often cannot see the entire track and many times only watches a small portion of the track throughout the race. Video screens are available at various intervals, on which the audience can see the television broadcast.

Picking your spot

The bulk of the grandstands at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg are located on the main straightaway. These stands provide a good view of pit lane and of a fast part of the track. There will likely, however, be few wrecks and few passes on that portion of the course.

For the best view, it is probably best to find a good view of Turns 13 and 14, or one of the other sharp, technical turns. Those locations are where most of the action will be.

Drivers, Start Your Engines

A lot of questions remain to be answered when the green flag falls in February. How good will the racing be? Maybe more importantly, will the race be beneficial to St. Petersburg? Begley said that less than half of the expected attendance will come from die-hard CART fans. That means that many of the financial concerns will be decided by the people of the Tampa Bay region.

Begley said, with these questions, we’ll just have to wait and see.

“Because this event has never been run before, it’s hard to say with any certainty,” he said.