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Deannexation Threat Raised : Del Mar Grand Prix Off; Feud May Be On Again

Times Staff Writer

Blaming delays caused by legal challenges, promoters of a controversial Grand Prix auto race scheduled to take place at the Del Mar Fairgrounds in November have canceled the event.

Jeff Green, a spokesman for the Grand Prix Assn. of Long Beach, said Wednesday that “a series of legal maneuvers” by the City of Del Mar, which sought to block the race, effectively robbed promoters of time they needed to secure sponsors and meet a long list of conditions imposed on the event by the California Coastal Commission.

Green said that because legal uncertainties clouded the race until an out-of-court settlement between the city and the state fairgrounds was reached Aug. 8, promoters “just didn’t have the time to put together a high-quality, professional event” by Nov. 7.

Race officials vowed, however, that the 10-day auto extravaganza would take place in the fall of 1987 as the grand finale on the International Motor Sports Assn. (IMSA) racing circuit.

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The cancellation comes two weeks after promoters announced plans to scale down the event from 10 days to 3. Green said that even three days of racing was viewed as impossible given the time constraints.

Raymond Saatjian, president of the Del Mar fair board, expressed regret that promoters were forced to scratch the race, which has been the object of a lingering dispute between the City of Del Mar and the state fairgrounds. Saatjian, who has blasted Del Mar officials for their lawsuit seeking to block the race, said the blame for cancellation of the event rests squarely with the city.

“I’m very disappointed and disheartened and dismayed that this lawsuit, which we consider totally lacking in merit and frivolous, was able to create this dilemma and produce this result,” Saatjian said. “It means revenue losses for us, for the City of Del Mar and for local merchants counting on the crowds . . . And it means a loss to lots of San Diego race fans who were anticipating the event.”

Saatjian speculated that fair board members may now resume consideration of deannexing the fairgrounds from the city, which relies heavily on the state facility for financial support. That move could spark new tensions between the two entities, which have had bitter relations for nearly a year.

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“Because the race has been postponed, the validity of certain aspects of our (Aug. 8) legal agreement with the city are in question, and one of those is the deannexation issue,” Saatjian said. “The board hasn’t acted, but I suspect the issue of deannexation may be addressed in October.”

Meanwhile, opponents of the race, who feared the whir of high-speed sports car engines would fill the air with an intolerable din, were ecstatic to learn the event had been axed. Some of them even gloated.

“You want to come to our champagne party?” Solana Beach resident H.K. (Hal) Friedland asked a reporter when asked for a comment on the cancellation. “We were thinking of inviting Ray Saatjian as guest of honor.”

Del Mar Councilwoman Brooke Eisenberg was equally pleased, calling the turn of events “a gratifying conclusion to this whole episode.”

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“I never thought (the race) was the right thing for Del Mar, and I know a lot of residents agree with me,” said Eisenberg, whose June campaign for office was built around her opposition to the event. “At this point, I doubt whether there’s any future for a Grand Prix in our town.”

Eisenberg said she believes race promoters will instead choose the track at Otay Mesa, currently under construction, as a venue for their event in the future years.

Controversy over the Grand Prix surfaced late last year when city officials learned of the fair board’s plans to enter a five-year lease with race promoters, who also represent the Long Beach Grand Prix. The 22nd District Agricultural Assn., as the fair board is formally known, endorsed the racing as a way to raise revenue--as much as $1 million over the five years--and increase interim use of the state facility, which hosts the summer fair, thoroughbred racing and occasional concerts and horse shows.

After board members approved the lease, the Coastal Commission awarded a permit and the plans for two weekends of racing on a temporary track, with charitable events and other assorted activities sandwiched between, got under way.

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Del Mar officials were outraged, claiming that auto racing was antithetical to the seaside character of their community. Citizens’ groups formed to fight it and ultimately the city sued the district, alleging that an environmental impact report prepared on the event’s noise levels and other effects was inadequate.

That move in turn infuriated fair board members, who began discussing the possibility of deannexing from the city and forming a special district. While difficult to accomplish, such an action would be devastating for tiny Del Mar, which receives about $800,000 annually in service fees and taxes from the district.

The two sides traded barbs for several weeks. Then an 11th-hour accord was reached on Aug. 8, minutes before a San Diego Superior Court hearing on the city’s case was due to begin. Under the settlement--which many race opponents viewed as a defeat for Del Mar--the fair board stopped talking about seceding and the city agreed to suspend its lawsuit.

Now that the race has been postponed, Saatjian and fellow board members are urging the city to reactivate the suit so that the issues raised by the city can be aired.

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“We want it settled once and for all,” Saatjian said, noting that the board has already directed the state attorney general’s office to attempt to put the lawsuit back on the calendar. “It succeeded in fouling things up this time, and we certainly don’t intend to let Del Mar have that chance again.”

Saatjian added that he is confident that the district “will prevail on the merits of our position.”

Mayor Lew Hopkins said he did not know whether the city would press forward with its suit, noting that the matter would be discussed at the council meeting Monday night.


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