Rick Baker

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- In his 16th-floor office with the panoramic vista of Tampa Bay, Rick Baker gently winds a racing-themed music box that plays the familiar “(Back Home Again in) Indiana” tune. It induces a smile, transporting the former two-term Mayor of St. Petersburg, Fla., to his formative years on the far west side of Indianapolis.

“We lived a short distance from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and you could hear the roar of the engines from our front porch,” Baker says. “I got goose bumps the first time every year I heard those engines.

“Now my children for the last 10 years have heard the roar of the engines from our front porch in the Old Northeast of St. Petersburg. I get goose bumps the first time every year when the engines start. I see myself as an 8 year old again. I go back home, and there’s something special about that.”

Click it: Get tickets for the March 28-30 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

Rick BakerThe music box, which occupied a cherished spot on his late father’s desk, is among the collection of racing memorabilia mainly relating to the IndyCar Series races in St. Petersburg that forms a great conversation starter.

Actually, Baker, since 2011 the president of real estate and development company The Edwards Group, doesn’t need much prompting to discuss the 10th INDYCAR-sanctioned race on the 1.8-mile temporary street circuit or its history. As the city’s Mayor and unofficial CMO, Baker was the chief proponent and lead architect of bringing the festival of speed to the downtown corridor that has grown exponentially vibrant in the intervening years.

St. Petersburg had a few failed attempts at establishing street racing downtown in the 1980s, and a Champ Car race was scuttled after one year because of the sanctioning body’s bankruptcy proceedings and then promoter Dover Motorsports “pulled the plug on it and we had nobody,” Baker says.

Firm in his conviction, Baker says that he then did something that was so outlandish at the time that it brings another smile to his face.

“It was my love for IndyCar racing and my understanding of what it can do for a city that convinced me to cold call (then-INDYCAR CEO) Tony George in April 2003,” Baker says. “I decided I would begin the conversation with Tony with not the typical economic development stuff but convince him that I was an IndyCar fan. I started talking about who won every Indianapolis 500 since 1960, when I moved to Indianapolis. I was expressing to him what it did for the City of Indianapolis and that I believed in the sport. Everything you do, even if you’re president of the United States or mayor of a city, is relationships and having people believe in you and trust you.

“Kevin Dunn, the city head of our racing effort, was on the line as was Ken Unger (senior vice president of business affairs for the sanctioning body). We talked about racing legends of the past and present. My point was I understood the importance of the race to a city: the vibrancy, the economic impact and the sense of pride it instills. It was more than an economic development project to me. It was a passion.

“What we were doing was bold. INDYCAR had never run a street race or road race. We were setting ourselves up to be the first right-hand turn in INDYCAR.

“Years later, Ken shared this exchange: Tony put the phone on mute and said, ‘I like this guy already.’ ’’

Economic impact and much more

Seven different drivers have won the Grand Prix in its nine years, with Helio Castroneves being the only multiple winner. James Hinchcliffe earned his first IndyCar Series victory last March, becoming the first Canadian to win an IndyCar race since Paul Tracy in 2007.

The competition, the atmosphere and the intangibles have benefited the St. Petersburg-Tampa area, according to Baker, who notes that having the political, business and community support has paved over bumps along the way. Both current Mayor Rick Kriseman and former Mayor Bob Foster were City Council members during Baker’s eight years in office and are proponents of the racing event.

“There’s a direct economic impact. It’s always hard to measure, but they fill every hotel bed in the region for the week,” Baker says. “It raises the image of the city. We are now an INDYCAR town on ABC TV around the world. So what is the value for that three-hour commercial for the City of St. Petersburg? It’s big. Our Convention and Visitors Bureau says it’s like having the Final Four in town every year. Third is it's another one of those amenities for the community.”

Baker will be on hand for the 10th IndyCar Series race, shaking hands and unabashedly promoting the event and city.

“It’s been 10 years now and I still pinch myself that we were able to bring it here in the first place and we’re able continue it,” he says. “I learned as mayor that you have to establish things and then you have to make them work for the long term. This event is a good reason to work hard and make it work.”