Honda GP Of St. Petersburg Shapes Up As Marquee Event

3/1/2005 7:08:12 PM

In the 30-plus years he's worked around Indy-style racing, Kirk Russell has seen a few good first-time venues and several tracks that, frankly, weren't made for racing at any speed. But he knew instantly the IRL had a winner at St. Petersburg.

"A lot of street courses are a compromise between what makes sense from a city standpoint or from a marketing standpoint but this circuit at St. Pete wasn't compromised in either way," said Russell, who is serving as general field manager for the April 3 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

"It's just a phenomenal layout with a nice flow to it and some real challenging corners. It's as nice as anything I've ever seen."

The first-class track layout wasn't the only thing that motivated Honda to become title sponsor of the Indy Racing League's first-ever, non-oval event.

"Our sponsorship of the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg makes sense for a variety of reasons," said Manager of Corporate Communications Rob Alen. "It allows us to support the Indy Racing League, it gives us a strong presence in one of the major metropolitan markets in the United States, and it helps create a foundation for participating in what could potentially become one of premier events on the motorsports calendar."

The IRL's initial venture away from ovals is a 1.8-mile street course with 13 turns - the same configuration that debuted with Champ Cars and the Trans-Am series in 2003.

"We made a few subtle changes in the track, but nothing real noticeable," said Russell. "I think we've improved the safety by moving the walls back in Turns 4, 5, 6, 11, 12 and 1 to improve the sight lines.

"We also put FIA curbs into the corner of Turns 1 and 10, which will change the racing line and allow the drivers to brake in a straight line. That should help the passing and Turn 1 will still have that wide exit.

"We'll build new tire walls but we'll use the fences and blocks that are already in place."

The Elrod Company of Indianapolis is constructing new bleachers for the three-day road show and there have been other changes to increase capacity and viewing areas.

"The front straightaway is 60 feet wide and that's wider than we need, so we're moving the block fence inboard an extra 10 feet so people can walk from the north end to the south end," continued Russell. "The arena over by Turn 10 has been torn down so that gives people a new elevated area to stand.

"And since a third of the track is bordered by the harbor, we're putting in temporary docks, so big boats will be able to pull into the south marina and watch."

Russell spent most of February getting the utilities and power outlets squared away. Plans are to erect the first fencing in early March with the track being ready for Media Day on March 31.

"When I first saw this place last August I thought it would be a nice, competitive street course and then Barry [Green, the promoter] said he hoped to make it the Long Beach of the East Coast.

"I can definitely see that happening. There's a lot of enthusiasm in the community and there's not going to be a finer street course anywhere."