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.