COVER STORY : Leader of the Pack : Christopher R. Pook is the driving force behind a $200-million plan to build an auto research center and create 13,000 jobs.
Say what you will about automobile race impresario Christopher R. Pook, but he’s a consummate salesman.
Making a pitch a few weeks ago at Long Beach City Hall for a research and development park and test track on the Long Beach-Signal Hill border, Pook showed rapt City Council members pictures of rusting oil tanks and contaminated dirt on the prospective site.
Then he showed an architect’s rendering of gleaming structures, rustling trees and racing cars circling a grassy infield.
Finally, he flashed a pair of slides on a screen with the magical words “Jobs” and “Real Estate Enhancement” in block letters.
Pook had apparently pushed the right buttons. Praise rippled up and down the City Council dais like “the wave” going through a football stadium, with one council member after another taking up the theme.
Groping for superlatives, Councilman Les Robbins blurted: “This is a very important project whose potential is beyond comprehension.”
In a city where real estate values have sunk and jobs have disappeared like a desert mirage, good news arrives like a rumor of water among the desperately thirsty.
The $200-million Transwest Park Research and Development Complex, with its promise of 13,000 full-time jobs and an eventual economic impact in the nine-digit range, has the potential to be very good news indeed--though some auto industry experts have already voiced skepticism about the idea.
Christopher Pook, 53, the British-born former travel agent who brought Grand Prix to Long Beach and an aggressive entrepreneur whom everybody, including Pook himself, describes as “a bulldog,” gives the project special credibility, several council members said.
“He’s a very astute businessman--an expert in his field,” says Councilman Mike Donelon.
Of course, the project--including research facilities, test track, alternative fuels center, driving school and a planned four auto races a year--has a long way to go before it is even officially considered by the city councils of Long Beach and Signal Hill.
Additionally, officials of Signal Hill, which has jurisdiction over 55% of the 200-acre site, are sounding less eager than those in Long Beach.
“In my opinion it has tremendous potential,” said Signal Hill City Manager Douglas LaBelle. “But the environmental impacts need to be very critically analyzed--noise, traffic, that sort of thing. We’re proceeding down that middle road.”
Both the Long Beach Community Development Agency and the Signal Hill city manager’s office have been directed to study the plan, which relies on city redevelopment money and private investment. The developers--including J.A. Jones Construction Co. of North Carolina, the third-largest builder in the country, and Affiliated Development Group, a Pasadena-based firm headed by former Long Beach Transit Chairman George Medak--must produce an environmental report.
Meanwhile, a group headed by racing tycoon Roger Penske is moving full-speed on plans for a track in Fontana, 50 miles away in San Bernardino County, which should be completed in 1996. That’s a year before the earliest possible completion date for the Pook project.
The Penske track already has commitments from Indy car and stock car sanctioning associations to stage races there, said Walter Czarnecki, executive vice president of the Penske Corp. Czarnecki added that under current plans, “there will ample opportunities for testing--tire companies, auto companies, educational institutions, alternate fuels researchers.”
Reflecting on the two similar proposals, a spokesman for one major auto manufacturer with facilities in California said “I can’t believe Southern California will support” two new test tracks.
But don’t count Pook out, Long Beach officials caution.
In recent years, as Long Beach-based McDonnell Douglas was laying off 30,000 workers and the U.S. Navy was dismantling the Long Beach Naval Station, there has always been one reliable piece of good news for the city’s merchants and budget-crafters. Every spring, 200,000 or so fans gather over three days at the city’s waterfront to watch racing cars.
The annual Grand Prix, which Pook founded in 1975, brings about $30 million worth of business to Long Beach and gives the city’s sputtering 5,000-room hotel industry its most profitable week of the year.
Pook is talking about a more permanent monument to his preoccupation (He’s “Prix-occupied,” says the license plate frame on his 1994 Lexus), converting a dreary-looking oil field into a modern racetrack surrounded by several 12-story alabaster office towers and with college professors with stopwatches studying automotive prototypes careening down the roadway.
“It’s not a complicated project,” says Pook, a short, compact man with a goatee and a sweep of iron-gray hair curling over his collar. “You’ve got an ugly piece of land over here. You’ve got a human resource over there. And you’ve got a huge market.”
The market is the auto industry, which Pook contends suffers from lack of research and testing facilities.
Pook’s idea is to link a large pool of workers with technical skills--the unemployed or underemployed Southern California aerospace workers--with the car designers and manufacturers in the region and with university-based researchers. Transwest would provide custom-built space for the automotive design companies and a 1.25-mile track to test their products.
The most visible proponent of the Transwest complex is a pugnacious, blunt-spoken former race driver with a reputation for embellishing his past but with a proven talent for salesmanship.
“Pook walks out of a room after talking to you, and you pretty much believe what he wants you to believe,” says Hank Ives, Pook’s publicity director for eight years in the 1970s and 1980s. “He’s very forceful.”
Pook’s harshest critics are usually former employees and associates, who talk about his abrasiveness and his penchant for ruthlessly “stepping over bodies” in his headlong rush for success. Most would not talk on the record for fear of business or employment repercussions. “I still have to do business in this city,” said one former employee who was fired by Pook.
But the racing impresario himself concedes that his unbridled perfectionism and compulsive attention to detail has, on occasion, led to friction.
“I’m a real pain in the ass (with the people he works with),” Pook concedes. “I want (a job) done to completion and usually to perfection. I’m known for that. There’s a little bit of overkill there maybe.”
“He’s an exceptionally arrogant man,” said one former associate, who asked not to be identified.”
Pook’s obsessive finagling with details is most apparent during the three days of the Grand Prix, when his staff is put on a rigid minute-by-minute schedule. He proudly displays a copy of last April’s race-day schedule, 15 single-spaced pages of designated tasks, from a 5:15 a.m. check of radios at the Grand Prix headquarters to an 8 p.m. compulsory shutdown of exhibitors’ booths.
“It’s like conducting a symphony orchestra,” Pook says, “except instead of having a guy in black tails and a bow tie you have a dispatcher.”
Born in Somerset, England, Pook is the son of an engineer-inventor father with an interest in car racing and a mother who was the heiress of a family of hard-cider manufacturers.
From his youth, Pook wanted to be a car racer, he says. But he wasn’t an especially talented driver. As a novice, he crashed on a treacherous stretch of rural road during a minor cross-country race. “A tree ran out and hit me,” he says jokingly. “Actually, a wheel came off.” He suffered injuries to his knees, pelvis, arm and shoulder.
In 1963, with his ambitions to be a professional driver shattered, he headed to the United States.
Pook tells a story about agreeing, before he came to America, to work in a management job with the Chase Manhattan Bank in New York. “I got there on a Tuesday, left on a Saturday,” he says. “I hated New York, so I asked to be relieved of my contract, and went to Chicago. Spent two hours driving around the Loop and areas around it, then I went to L.A.”
But Pook has also said in previous interviews that he was sponsored in this country by Bellflower real estate entrepreneur Miles Shook, who hired him to run some apartment buildings. Shook could not be reached for comment.
Pook says--as does his official biography, distributed by the Long Beach Grand Prix Assn.--that he came to this country armed with a marketing degree from the University of London and a modern languages degree from the Sorbonne in Paris. A spokeswoman for the English school said it has no record of his degree.
Those who admire Pook shrug off the occasional discrepancies in accounts of his life. “Remember, he’s a salesman,” says Pete Biro, an editor at Drive Magazine and Pook’s former public relations director.
In the late 1960s, Pook moved to Long Beach and set himself up as a travel agent. “Long Beach is the world’s best-kept secret,” says Pook, a past chairman of the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. “It’s strategically located. You can get to LAX, downtown L.A. or Orange County with ease. It’s pleasant and airy.”
By 1973, he had strong connections at City Hall, handling much of the city’s travel business, as well as picking up contracts from Cal State Long Beach for transporting athletic teams and handling travel arrangements for the city’s Convention and News Bureau.
On Memorial Day, 1973, Pook says, he was listening to a radio broadcast of the Indy 500. It was at a time when city officials, with a new convention center on their hands, were searching for ways to market Long Beach.
“I said to myself, ‘That would be easy. Run some cars around the streets and get everybody’s attention,’ ” Pook recalls.
He set to work on the idea, wending his way through the city land-use process (with a few well-placed friends in city government running interference for him, according to critics), winning the sanction of the Automobile Competitions Committee of the United States for the race and raising hundreds of thousands of dollars in operating capital and prize money.
He also brought in some partners, including former racer Dan Gurney, Long Beach lawyer Don N. Dyer and three other Long Beach-area investors.
The last hurdle was winning approval from the California Coastal Commission, which has a say in every major new project located within 1,000 yards of the coastline.
When a Long Beach resident objected to the prospect of howling race cars tearing through city streets, the commission held a hearing in San Diego. After Pook promised to charter buses to carry elderly residents to the country on race days, the commission approved the event.
The Grand Prix organization did send three busloads of people to Big Bear that year, but most residents elected to stay in town and watch the race, Pook says. Now, the race is held along Shoreline Drive, where the city’s bluffs block much of the noise.
The first Long Beach Grand Prix in September, 1975, was a public relations coup for the city, with pictures of the city’s waterfront broadcast all over the world.
“Guess what,” says Pook, with undisguised pride. “People started knowing where Long Beach was.”
Nevertheless, the race was a financial disaster, losing more than $300,000 and prompting charges from critics that the city had subsidized the event to the tune of $190,000, despite promises from City Manager John R. Mansell “not to spend a dime of city money” on it.
Most of the money was in the form of expenditures for city services, including modifications of city streets to accommodate the course of the race.
The next Grand Prix, the first European-style Formula 1 race, using sports cars, lost another $200,000.
By 1977, however, Pook’s organization had paid the city back for race-day services, and he and his backers began to make money. Profits grew even larger after 1984, when Pook switched from Formula 1 racing--with high costs for transporting fragile racing cars from Europe and limited fan interest in the United States--to Indy-style racing.
Two years ago, the Long Beach Grand Prix Assn. opened its own headquarters in a converted bakery on Pacific Avenue, only a few blocks away from the would-be Transwest Park. There, in offices plastered with race memorabilia, a full-time staff of 34 handles marketing and public relations jobs, serves as consultants for other sporting events and pieces together the next Long Beach race.
Pook’s second wife, Ellen, runs the company’s merchandising operation. Pook has two grown children from a prior marriage, as well as a grown stepson. His 22-year-old son David is a fledgling race driver.
Pook says the company is expecting an onslaught of criticism for the Transwest plan. “People resist change,” he says.
There are already signs of resistance.
Auto industry experts challenge Pook’s contention that there’s a desperate need for more automotive research and development, as evidenced by an increasing number of product recalls.
Most of the recalls are prompted by a desire to satisfy consumers in a highly competitive market, rather than by defective engineering, says Ronald A. Glantz, an industry analyst for Dean Witter Reynolds in San Francisco.
Also, most manufacturers with design operations in Southern California, such as American Honda in Torrance, already have their own test tracks, though not in the immediate region. Honda has a double track in the Mojave Desert, with a variety of surfaces for testing prototypes. Isolated testing facilities make it easy to keep designs secret, said Kurt Antonius, Honda’s senior manager for corporate public relations.
Pook responds to such comments with smoldering conviction. The Long Beach track will offer full security for prototype testing, he said.
Economists at Cal State Long Beach, are studying the Transwest plan. Based on the information planners have given them, said associate professor Peter Griffin, Pook’s projections for new jobs and economic impact (about $175 million a year after seven years) appear to be “within the ballpark.”
But Pook’s immediate task is persuading the communities where Transwest will be located.
There has already been some grumbling about the noise and traffic that auto races would bring to the neighborhood, as well as some suspicions about Pook’s intentions.
“My understanding is that he wants to run four races a year there,” says Bob Kolowes, president of the California Heights Neighborhood Assn. “But money has a way of changing people’s minds.”
But most residents and businesses near the 200-acre oil field and storage area consider the site an eyesore and have welcomed Pook’s proposal.
This, declares City Councilman Donelon, who represents the district where the project site is located, would be no ordinary “greasy racetrack.”
“That’s not Chris’ style,” Donelon says.