St. Petersburg Preview

 by Paul Josephson
February 21, 2003

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St. Pete Track

The inaugural Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will take place this weekend. While the ChampCar race on Sunday at 1:00 PM EST will be the featured event, several other support races will be will held, including the Trans-Am Series for the BF Goodrich Tires Cup, the Fran-Am 2000 Winter World Series Championship Series, and the CART Barber Dodge Pro Series. Tom Begley, the GPSP General Manager, said today that this weekend will be the fulfillment of a 12-year dream he has had to bring ChampCar racing to the streets of St. Petersburg.

The Track
Thursday morning, I walked this beautiful track. It will rapidly become a premier track in the ChampCar series. It’s truly first class in its layout and features.  These pictures of the St. Petersburg track taken from left to right (turn 9 to turn 10 and beyond) depict a very Long Beach like setting.

Photos by Mark Cipolloni

The track is set in the heart of downtown St. Petersburg. I last visited the area where the race will be held in September 2002 and was amazed at what has transpired since that time. Five months ago, I had some concerns that the city wouldn’t be able to make the many upgrades necessary in time to hold a major racing event. The place is now almost unrecognizable. Tom and his crews have done a remarkable job.

When I first visited the planned track in December 2001 (see related article), I thought it had a lot of potential, but I was worried that Turns 4, 5, and 6 through the parking lot of the baseball stadium would be far too narrow. If two or more cars made contact or if a car expired given the planned configuration, the event would have to be re-flagged. Since that time, however, some parts of the parking lot have been torn up and repaved. In fact, with the exception of the main straight on the airport tarmac, the entire racing circuit has been re-surfaced with asphalt and should provide excellent grip, once some rubber is laid down during practice and qualifying sessions this weekend.

I started my own slow-motion Grand Prix at Turn 9, walking clockwise, the same direction of the circuit. Turn 9 is a 90° right-hander and starts the section of the track that runs along the shoreline. The harbor facing this section of the track provides a beautiful backdrop for the race as it contains slips for several hundred boats.

A few hundred feet past Turn 9 is a gradual left-hand kink. The track then continues straight along the shoreline past the Bayfront Center to Turn 10, which is an 80° left-hander. Five months ago, the area past Turn 10 was part of the Albert Whitted Airport parking lot with several small islands with curbing and trees. Part of the parking lot has now been transformed into the track section between Turns 10 and 11. Three sets of grandstands have been erected along with two large Vision Boards for viewing. Rumors at today’s Media Luncheon at the nearby Renaissance Vinoy & Golf Club suggest that Turns 11 and 12 will really test the drivers’ reaction times as they have to make a quick 45° right, then another quick 45° left at high speed before heading to the small parabolica at Turns 13 and 14. For the drivers who have some trouble breaking at the beginning of Turn 13, there is a large grassy runoff section in front of the tire barriers.

As the drivers exit the parabolica, they’ll floor it to head down the longest straight of the circuit, runway 6 at the Airport. This part of the track is very wide and flat, unlike the tarmac at Burke Lakefront Airport in Cleveland, which has dips in several places for water runoff. Instead of going the straightaway, the drivers can enter Pit In they round Turn 14. Expect to see a lot of passing along the main straight as they pass the major grandstand area and head into Turn 1, which is very wide before narrowing again at Turn 2. Pit Out rejoins the track at Turn 2, a 45° left-hander, so the guys will have to watch out for others re-entering the circuit from the pits. The track continues straight for a couple hundred feet before going through a chicane under the Snap-On and PacifiCare bridges, just before Turn 3.

The drivers will once again floor it while exiting Turn 3, accelerating down the second longest straightaway on 1st Street. Hard braking will again be in order as the cars make a 90° right-hander at Turn 4, going through the baseball stadium parking lot. Here the track snakes through Turn 5, a 90° left-hander and then goes through another left-right chicane at Turns 6 and 7, passing under the Bridgestone bridge. After Turn 7, the track goes around Pioneer Park, making another right-hander at Turn 8 before heading a short distance to Turn 9. In all, the track is just over 1.8 miles.

While I walked the circuit, I saw Patrick Lemarié, Craig Pollock, and two of their associated inspecting the entire track. They were checking out every little detail, from the curbing to every bump (of which there are few!). I talked to Patrick who liked the track very much.

What’s impressive about the track is the number of wide corners and adequate runoffs in most areas. Its very flat, smooth surface is also remarkable. Although there a virtually no elevation changes because we’re at sea level, there’s a good amount of variety of turns and straights to the track.

Just like setting up for the race at Long Beach, there were some last minutes things to do on the day before racing starts. Some parts of the track have several hundred bound tires that have to be moved and set up as tire barriers, and some fencing work was being completed. There were also cameramen setting up the many TV cameras, while other crews worked on mending some minor cracks here and there. It should be an exciting weekend and a great way to kick off the new year in ChampCar racing.

Planned Activities for the Weekend
The Lifestyle Expo (à la Long Beach) at the Bayfront Center by Turn 10 will feature the latest high-tech products and services in automotive, travel, entertainment, electronics, recreation, food, home & garden, fitness and racecars, games and simulators. The Expo is open Friday and Saturday from 8 AM – 6 PM and Sunday from 8 to 5.

Better Than Ezra will perform a concert, free to ticket holders, outside the Bayfront Center starting 15 minutes after the conclusion of the Barber Dodge Series race on Saturday afternoon.

How to build a circuit in 47 days . . .
While many of the statistics about the track are impressive, the most amazing one is probably the number 47 – that’s how many days it took to build the track. “To say it was a challenge is an understatement,” says Mike Grott, Director of Operations for the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, a subsidiary of Dover Motorsports, Inc., which is staging the event. “Then, the minute it’s over, we’ll take it apart, inspect the equipment, make repairs, and store it for next year.”

Terry Harmeson, VP Motorsports, Dover Motorsports, Inc., Grott and their staffs of 50 people put in more than 30,000 working hours to get all of the creature comforts in place and have the circuit ready for some 200+ mph racing. The 47-day construction marathon included placing more than 14 million tons of concrete blocks, fitted with debris fencing, and 76,000 feet of cable on the city streets. More than 19,000 feet of fencing has been erected, and 14,000 tires have been wired together to minimize crash damage.

Harmeson, Grott, and their staffs also built or erected:

• 15 huge spectator grandstands;
• 3 pedestrian bridges;
• 4 giant Vision Boards for full-circuit TV coverage for those in the grandstands;
• More than 40 hospitality tents of various sizes and shapes; and
• 40 VIP viewing suites.

(Thanks to the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Media Guide for the above statistics.)

The author can be contacted at feedback@autoracing1.com

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