ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- In just four years, the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg has become what Indy Racing League founder Tony George calls "a signature event" for the IndyCar Series.
The success of the IndyCar event on the Florida Gulf Coast, which features the Acura Sports Car Challenge for the American Le Mans Series as a co-headliner, was rewarded Sunday with a four-year contract extension. Factoring in the one year remaining on the existing contract, it means top-level open-wheel and sports car racing are set to stay in the area until the year 2013.
The extension is subject to City Council approval.
"The Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg has been a terrific thing for the city of St. Petersburg the past few years," Mayor Rick Baker said. "It's had a tremendous economic impact, generated a lot of media exposure and it has rapidly become a tradition that's part of the fabric of our city.
"Two premier events in two days is an incredible asset for a city to have."
This year's St. Petersburg weekend was clearly the most successful to date. Andretti Green Promotions president Kevin Savoree said attendance was up "dramatically" on Friday and Saturday and a record crowd was expected for Sunday's activities.
"We're very pleased with the development of the St. Petersburg race," observed Terry Angstadt, president of the IRL's commercial division.
"There's great atmosphere and the crowds are huge. The AGP guys are smiling."
Angstadt confirmed that IndyCar officials are exploring the possibility of opening the 2009 season at St. Petersburg. Homestead- Miami Speedway has hosted the IRL opener since 2001.
"We'd like to run the race earlier, even earlier than Homestead," he said. "The two main challenges we face in terms of the future schedule are finding warm-weather venues early in the year and additional events in the fall leading up to Surfers Paradise."
George, who started the IRL as an all-oval series but has warmed up to the notion of additional road and street races, was hesitant to predict that St. Pete could become the IndyCar Series' first event annually.
"Whether or not it could ever be an opener, I don't know," he said.
"Probably not, but it's an important warm-weather event as we kick the season off. If you could have it as an opener, there would be a lot of energy around it. We'll have to see."
The St. Petersburg event started life as a CART Champ Car race in 2003, but CART's bankruptcy left the race in limbo for a year before Michael Andretti formed AGP to take over where CART left off.
AGP recently signed a letter of intent to possibly acquire Champ Car's event in Toronto, Canada.
"You have to have the right business model and be able to execute it, and we're hoping that carries over to Toronto," Savoree said.
"We're working very hard on that.
"I can't express how excited I am to have this piece of our model nailed down for the next few years," he added. "It really speaks to the stability of racing here in St. Petersburg. We're here to stay."
One potential obstacle for the event is the possible construction of a $450 million open-air baseball stadium for the Tampa Bay Major League Baseball franchise.
City development administrator Rick Mussett told the St. Petersburg Times that he believes any conflicts can be worked out.
"There is no reason why we can't have two sports down here," Mussett said. "I think we will find a way to make it workable."
The large crowds on all three days at St. Petersburg brought a smile to George, who saw series newcomer Graham Rahal become the youngest (at 19) to win a major American open-wheel race Sunday. Friday's crowd alone appeared larger than the combined total for the two-day IndyCar opening weekend at Homestead, which was estimated as the largest ever for an IRL race at the South Florida oval.
Improved attendance and a series record television rating for the
ESPN2 broadcast of the Homestead race have George feeling optimistic about the post-unification era of the IndyCar Series.
"So far it's meeting my expectations," he said. "I don't know if it's meeting everyone else's. It could be going a lot worse, and at some point I thought it would be worse. But there is lots of good news and a good feel. The sense I'm getting from everyone around it is that it's meeting their approval."
St. Petersburg, AGP and IRL officials paid tribute to American Honda, which promoted the weekend heavily through its Honda and Acura brands.
Honda has been a key supporter of the IndyCar Series since 2003, serving as the formula's sole engine supplier starting with the '06 season. That arrangement is set to continue through 2009.
An IndyCar insider said that the league is close to reaching agreement to extend Honda's involvement, which significantly leaves the door open for competing engine manufacturers to join.
"I don't know where you got your information from and I can't confirm or deny anything," said Erik Berkman, president of Honda Performance Development. "All I know is there are a lot of meetings going on in trailers with an eye toward the future."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.