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St. Pete City Council gets sneak peek at 2020 Firestone Grand Prix

Margie Manning

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2018 Firestone Grand Prix (Photo credit: City of St. Petersburg Flickr)

Work begins Monday to turn downtown St. Petersburg streets into a temporary race track, as organizers gear up for the 2020 Firestone Grand Prix.

The St. Petersburg City Council Thursday approved a resolution setting this year’s race dates — Friday, March 13 through Sunday, March 15. It’s the 16th year St. Petersburg has hosted the race, which draws worldwide media attention to the city.

There are several notables about this year’s race, Kevin Savoree, president and CEO of Savoree Green Racing Promotions, told the City Council.

• The time it takes to build the course and tear it down has been condensed to just over three weeks.

“One of the things you challenged us with several years ago was — a very busy city, how do we condense the build. Hopefully you can tell by not seeing anything yet that we haven’t started. So, this Monday, the 17th, we’ll start with Bayshore,” Savoree said. “We’ve now condensed the build to 23 days, which is pretty incredible. Then we have the race event for a four-day period, and then five days to get everything down.”

• The race starting time will be later than in the past.

“It will be broadcast on NBC Sports network at 3:30 Sunday,” said Chris Ballestra, the city’s director of enterprise facilities. “That’s a little bit of a change. Our green flags typically have been around 1 o’clock in the afternoon.”

• The NTT IndyCar Series has new ownership. Penske Corp., a global transportation, automotive and motorsports company, bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the NTT IndyCar Series and IMS Productions in a deal that closed in January. Roger Penske, a former professional auto racing driver, is chairman of Penske Corp.

“As soon as he took control in early January, Kim [Green, co-owner of Green Savoree] and I were called to Indianapolis to meet with him. He’s so focused on making all these events bigger and better, so I think we’re all going to benefit from that,” Savoree said.

The St. Petersburg race has kicked off the IndyCar season for 10 consecutive years, and with that comes worldwide media attention, including 400 credentialed media personnel, and broadcasts in 200 countries through affiliated media sources. “We cannot frankly buy the marketing that comes with this weekend,” Ballestra said.

Charitable activities in the days before the race include a karting event that benefits Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital and a 5K race that benefits the Police Athletic League.

The race day resolution approved by the City Council is part of the city’s original 2004 contract with race organizers, giving the city the right to set race days, Ballestra said. The City Council last year approved a four-year extension to the agreement.

The agreement includes a revenue participation component. The city receives $1 for every ticket sold.

The agreement also waives speed limits in the race area. That was news to City Council Chair Ed Montanari, whose brother is a veteran of the St. Petersburg Police Department.

“I guess I didn’t know that as part of the resolution we waive speed limits. We’ve got two assistant police chiefs in the back of the room here. I don’t want the police, like my brother, out there trying to write tickets to a race car driver. That would be funny,” Montanari said.

City Council member Darden Rice praised the shorter setup and teardown times for the race.

“I think a lot of us can remember many years ago when there would be a few complaints from people at Bayfront Tower. Now I know those same people hold parties and invite their friends over and watch the race,” she said.

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