The yellow caution flag is out. The Phoenix Grand Prix, considered by city officials to be their best ticket to drawing national and international tourists and development, may be heading into its last laps, New Times has learned.
City officials are back at the bargaining table, telling race promoter Bernie Ecclestone they want to renegotiate their five-year contract to assure he lives up to his end of the bargain. The way the city sees it, its job was to build a track--which it did--while Ecclestone's was to promote the race and the city--which he didn't.
"It's time for the city to play hardball with Bernie," says Harley Cluxton, a local race enthusiast whose Formula One roots go back to the days he was a Grand Prix driver. "The situation is simple. The city has dealt in good faith, Bernie hasn't." The racing enthusiast's chief beef is that Phoenix has been totally locked out of anything to do with the race except build the track. Cluxton spent four hours with Ecclestone at the last two races and says the promoter is unmoved and will never give the city what he promised.
"Ecclestone has no compelling financial interest to promote the Phoenix-U.S. Grand Prix," complains Cluxton. "The city has no control. They went in and said, `You promote the race and we'll give you the best race facilities possible.' Well, the city held up their end." Cluxton, an F/1 sponsor, groupie and former driver, says that because Ecclestone makes his money from sponsors and the international TV rights, the promoter has no incentive to help Phoenix. He'll promote the race in Paris, Ecclestone says, but forget Phoenix.
Phoenix Councilmember Alan Kennedy, the city council's point man for the race, reaches the same conclusion. In recent weeks, Kennedy sat down with David Clare, the promoter's aide, and started negotiations. No agreement has been reached and no date has been set for future talks.
Kennedy says he is asking Ecclestone to promote Phoenix throughout the world and promote the race to Phoenicians to hold public support--something city officials thought Ecclestone would be doing in the first place. Kennedy has even proposed the city council will help with the promotion effort in both time and money.
Kennedy is asking for a promotional spot to show Phoenix during the race on the national and international telecast like is done during half time in college football games where the hometown university gets to hype its physics department. He is discussing the possibility of a sellout rule that would allow local TV coverage if all tickets are bought out before a specified time. Kennedy also wants the race promoter to cut ticket prices. "You can't charge $50 for standing room. No Phoenician in his right mind would do that," says Cluxton, who knows tickets in other countries are much lower. To make things worse, he notes, the standing fans don't even get to watch the show. They see a fifteen- to twenty-foot view of the track. Cars zip by at more than 100 mph. They get to see each car for just tenths of a second on each lap and they can't follow the race. TV monitors could alleviate the situation, but no one wants to buy them.
Another concern from the city council is the total lack of representation of local press. Phoenix photographers and reporters were given the brush-off by the promoter for the last two years. Kennedy's plan to rouse local support hinges on Phoenix media coverage.
Kennedy says he's trying to look at the problem through the eyes of the promoter and wishes the promoter would give the city the same consideration: "Ecclestone sees the Grand Prix as the second most- attended sport in the world next to World Cup soccer and the promoter can't understand that Phoenix is a multisport town and that he won't get the undying support of Phoenix like he does in other places around the world where people save all year for this one event." Although Kennedy pledges the city will fulfill its contractual obligations, he cautions that the race will not go past the five-year point unless there are concessions. Kennedy says he's only asking that the city get its money's worth.
PHOENIX IS THE fifth American city to inherit the race, which has gone from Long Beach to Las Vegas to Dallas to Detroit. Phoenix picked up the race in 1989 after the Motor City's promotional group gracefully asked Ecclestone to leave. By the time Phoenix signed the contract, it had fewer than four and one-half months to erect a racetrack between Seventh Street and Seventh Avenue and Jefferson and Washington Streets. The initial track cost was $3 million, and the city was obligated to spend $5 million more during the next four years. City officials sat back and waited for the 50,000 spectators expected to watch peculiar-named Europeans like Tarquini, Nannir, and Gugelman race at speeds up to 200 mph on the 2.36-mile course. Only 31,000 showed. But the dismal attendance was blamed on the June heat, which exposed the world to such wonderful sights as drivers with tinfoil wrapped around their heads to reflect the unbearable sun. When the race was moved to March this year, expectations soared again. But only 20,000 bothered to attend.
Kennedy warns that unless the race generates a larger public following--especially by Phoenicians--it will become so unpopular the city council will be obliged to give Ecclestone a "thanks, but no thanks" when it's time to renew the contract.
None of this was news to officials in Detroit and Long Beach, who laughed when told of Phoenix's dilemma. They had heard it all before. As Yogi Berra once said, "It was deja vu all over again."
"When it looked like we were going to get taken to the cleaners [by Ecclestone], we said, `Adios,'" said Eric Dueweke, director of operations for the Detroit Renaissance, a group of downtown business people who promoted the Grand Prix there. "It wasn't worth it to us."
During renegotiations of the Detroit contract, Ecclestone demanded new facilities which neither the city nor the downtown development group was able to supply. When Ecclestone's insistence level began a crescendo, the group pulled the plug on his speaker phone and bade him farewell, Dueweke says.
Are they sorry Formula One split town? "Not at all," Dueweke says. His group is much happier sponsoring the American alternative to Formula One called the CART Grand Prix because it controls the race activities and has found these promoters cooperative. Even the tradeoffs--lower attendance and less international exposure--have not dampened the enthusiasm. Detroit has signed an exclusive TV contract with the CBS network to show its race nationwide.
"There's no comparison," Dueweke says. "We have more exposure in the U.S. and less overseas. We're not unhappy we made the change." There are significant distinctions between the Phoenix and Detroit Formula One contracts. Detroit Renaissance received cash from Ecclestone. Phoenix doesn't. Detroit split the ticket proceeds to help pay for promotion. Phoenix gets nothing from ticket sales. Detroit was able to control the promotions within the city through a board of business leaders. Phoenix city officials say they can't even hold a golf tournament during the Grand Prix if Ecclestone doesn't give the okay. Detroit's only expense was an $880,000 street-resurfacing job compared to Phoenix's $8 million, five-year ticket.
HOW DOES ECCLESTONE respond to such allegations? New Times tried to contact Clare or Ecclestone at their London office, but has had no response. The promoter's front man in Phoenix, Scott Winn, says "You have to understand, he's extremely busy. If you'll send a FAX, I'll see if I can get London to FAX you a response." So far, the London FAX hasn't talked to the New Times FAX.
Ecclestone, a 53-year-old former motorcycle and used-car salesman, is notorious for not responding to inquiries from anyone in Phoenix, including City Hall, insiders say.
But the city is over a barrel, officials concede. They want to keep the Grand Prix--badly. They've already invested nearly $5 million and they think the race is a smashing success in terms of currency inflow and advertising outflow.
Tourist interests have been calling daily for next year's race date. They see green--wads of it. Jack Tevlin, the mayor's chief of staff is being pestered by local hotel managers and restaurateurs for the next scheduled Grand Prix date tentatively set for Saint Patrick's Day, March 17, 1991. Apparently, international tourists fork out incredible amounts of money to be entertained, Tevlin says he's been told. "They spend like nobody else. It's excellent business for [the local establishments]."
And if the race is promoted better, it could be a major cash cow for the city's tourism industry.
Cluxton gave himself as an example. He had just returned from the British Grand Prix in Silverstone, two hours from London. More than 350,000 people packed a former World War II air base to watch the F/1 race.
Cluxton stayed at an "upscale Holiday Inn," fifteen miles from the site, and paid nearly $175 per night. His ride to the race, a thirty-seat helicopter, flew fans to the event from the hotel at a $468 round-trip price. He said F/1 fans are used to astronomical prices.
Additionally, city leaders salivate over the worldwide TV coverage, 235 million viewers watched last year and the audience is getting bigger. "It's cheap for international exposure," Kennedy says. "And, it's not just the numbers of people we reach, it's the kinds of people." Officials yearn that Phoenix become a mecca for jet-setting developers. This type of advertising is essential for that purpose.
Film crews from Japan, Italy, and France came to do segments not only on the race but on the city itself. An Italian TV crew showed a half-hour special on Phoenix and covered the event for a week building up to the race.
"People in those countries were exposed to Phoenix for weeks," gushes Jerry Giger, one of the city's promoters. "You can't buy that type of publicity. I can't imagine anything that rivals that magnitude."
The city will spend $2.5 million this year to attract tourists and $550,000 for an economic development staff, but neither has the power nor the bang of the race.
To keep the cash, the council must keep the race. To keep the race, the council must appease Phoenicians. Politicians are worried voters will look at this as one more city boondoggle.
"This is a watershed year," Kennedy says. "If we're not successful in dispersing this throughout the community, we'll lose the political support necessary for the event. Unless this has popular support, this won't work and rightly so."
The councilmember and others at the city are scrambling to put together a festival to coincide with the race so they can eliminate the impression that the Grand Prix is just a gimmick to attract elitist snobs. This attitude prevails among city residents who believe the race has been a dog. "Have you taken the patient off the respirator yet?" a physician chided Kennedy recently. The councilmember says he knows that Phoenicians will not get excited about a sport they are not involved in. The appearance of foreign guys with funny names doesn't help the public image.
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"The drivers don't speak English. The average Phoenician doesn't understand any of it," Cluxton says. "They know NASCAR [stock car racing], they know Indy cars, but they've never seen Formula One."
The 1991 Iceberg Phoenix Grand Prix will be a circus of sorts if Kennedy is able to put together all the puzzle pieces. Parties, an international arts festival and other events under the Grand Prix umbrella are planned to attract a mixture of people. "A lot of people don't care about the race," Kennedy says. "It has to become a community event instead of one geared for aficionados." Other events in the planning stages are a cowboy film festival for the international crowd and performances from sister cities like the Taipei Symphony Orchestra from Taiwan, a musical event from Hemeji, Japan, and a ballet from Hermosillo, Mexico. Kennedy's also dreamed up a parade of storytellers including Eddie Lanahan, "a national Irish treasure," an African American, and a Native American.
"To put people on the stage," he's dreaming up on-track events such as a 10K run, bicycling events and maybe letting people inspect the pits. Kennedy sees the festival as appealing to both local and international fans. "If we bring people halfway across the world, we don't want to disappoint them," he says.
Under Kennedy's vision, the race might become an afterthought to the festival. Other F/1 experts don't think the race will be overshadowed by the party. As Cluxton puts it, "Phoenix is special. There's no other street race in the world other than Monaco.