The speedometer of the Mustang Cobra pace car climbs toward 110 mph. My eyes dart between the gauge and the sharp right turn just ahead. She's a professional driver. She wouldn't be showing off. She wouldn't be putting us in... danger.
Kelly Williams drives with the nonchalance of someone sitting down to watch a Seinfeld rerun. Still and all, she might want to consider hitting ... the ... brakes.
Finally she does; the car lurches to the right, the rear tires slide a bit and she scoots into the parking lot of the Bayfront Center in St. Petersburg. There were no pit stops, but I did get a few pit stains.
The organizers of the 2003 Inaugural Grand Prix of St. Petersburg have set up this little ride-along to give media folk a taste of what it's like to barrel around the course that zigs and zags through 1.8 miles of downtown. A very tiny nibble, as it turns out. The open-wheel CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) race cars that compete in the main event on Sunday, Feb. 23, will likely reach top speeds that exceed 180 miles per hour. Most of those sleek, tubular machines will have engines with around 800 horsepower; this Mustang is rated at 320.
"There is no comparison [between the pace cars and the race cars]," says Mario Dominguez, CART's Rookie of the Year for 2002, who is on hand at the media event. "Our cars are always at the limit, always on the edge. They're way faster. It's easier to lose control."
Dominguez, a compact 26-year-old from Mexico City, is dressed casually — logo-less, hatless. He's the antithesis of the chaw-chewing, big-belt-buckle-wearing, Southern-drawlin' fellers that dominate the NASCAR circuit.
Road courses, such as the one in St. Petersburg, require more skill and timing than oval tracks, Dominguez says, as such the drivers have to be in better physical condition. "Just to turn the wheel of one of these (CART) cars is like lifting weights," he says. "Using the brakes takes 1,100 pounds of force, like working out your legs with weights. Plus your body is subject to all those Gs. And it's hot. Our heartbeats during the race are more rapid than a marathon runner."
Dominguez says he trains — weights and cardio — three hours a day. So much for race car drivers not being athletes.
Despite CART's more intricate courses and the superior speed and handling of its cars, NASCAR still rules in the U.S., especially in the Southeast. Further, the CART series features mostly international racers like Canada's Patrick Carpentier and Paul Tracy, Brazil's Bruno Junqueira, Mexico's Roberto Moreno and Adrian Fernandez, and Spain's Oriol Servia, all of whom will drive in the inaugural Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Two American drivers will compete: Jimmy Vasser and Ryan Hunter-Rea.
"The kind of racing (CART) does, there's a lot of left-hand turns, right-hand turns, quick passes; it's the kind of action you wouldn't see at NASCAR," says John Dunlap, PR director for Dover Motorsports, which is producing the event. "It has a different sort of feel to it, but I think it'll mesh well with what people already like about NASCAR. Plus, we feel there's a real atmosphere at this event, like a festival-type gathering."
With that in mind, Dover has set up the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg as a three-day (Feb. 21-23), multifaceted event. Most of the action, of course, will take place on the course. The Grand Prix race starts at 1 p.m. Sunday, but Friday and Saturday will feature a bevy of practice and qualifying rounds in classifications such as CHAMP Car, Trans-Am, Fran-Am and Barber Dodge.
Additionally, the Grand Prix will stage two concerts: On Friday, top-shelf Bay area rock band Barely Pink performs. Saturday features national rock act Better Than Ezra. Both shows take place about 5 p.m. (or about 15 minutes after the last race action of the day is concluded) on a stage set up inside the road course. The shows are free with Grand Prix admission.
Another feature of the event will be the Lifestyle Expo, held at the Bayfront Center starting at 8 a.m. each day. It will offer cutting edge products and experiences in automotive, travel, entertainment, recreation and race culture. Also included will be games, simulators, extreme sports demos and a variety of interactive activities.
Ticket packages start at $25 and $35 for one-day general admission, ranging all the way to $695 for the Pit Lane Club. For ticket info, call toll free 888-34-SPEED.