It's a Street Fight

Times Staff Writer

Dale Jensen and Brad Yonover knew they would be fighting history when they proposed staging a street race through downtown.

After all, a Formula One street race here was such an epic flop that it still makes old-timers shudder with the 15-year-old memory. But the two local real estate and entertainment entrepreneurs thought they could correct the mistakes made on that earlier occasion.

What surprised them, they say, was the vehement opposition of perhaps the most powerful force in auto racing: NASCAR.

Never mind the high-speed bumping and nudging that takes place on the asphalt of a racing oval or road course; the Phoenix battle, waged with lobbyists, surreptitious legislative maneuvers and legal threats, is much nastier. The state Legislature and city council have become interested in the matter, but with the former on vacation and the latter awaiting a feasibility study this summer, the outcome is still uncertain.

What is clear is that the proposal exposes a seething rivalry between NASCAR and the proposed race's sanctioning sponsor, Champ Car World Series, which runs an international schedule of the open-wheel, open-cockpit races of the kind that were once emblematic of motor sports in the United States but have sunk in popularity over the last decade. Champ Car's signature event is the Long Beach Grand Prix.

Then there is NASCAR's relationship with Phoenix International Raceway, a local track that would find itself in competition with the downtown race. The track is owned by International Speedway Corp., a public company controlled by the France family, which has also controlled NASCAR for three generations.

NASCAR says it is above involving itself in local competitive issues. "We have two different companies, run by two different executives," says NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston. He says that the organization has not taken a position on the Phoenix affair beyond observing that "the more motor sports and competition there is, the better it is for NASCAR."

But because its interests are so deeply entwined in the proposal's outcome, few people watching the issue find its protestation of neutrality credible. In its efforts to fight the downtown race, the Phoenix track has been widely viewed as a proxy for NASCAR and the France family.

Jensen, 56, and Yonover, 39, first broached the idea of a downtown street race with Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon last spring. They boasted strong business credentials: Yonover has a background in real estate and film producing, and Jensen is a former software entrepreneur and a co-owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Phoenix Suns.

Their proposal was to use the grand prix to spotlight a 38-acre downtown tract being redeveloped as a tourist and entertainment district, and in which they have investment interests.

They floated trial balloons among downtown business leaders for months before presenting city officials with a plan for a three-day annual festival in mid-November. The program, to start in 2007, would include rock concerts and street fairs, with the race as the climactic event. "Everyone was very enthusiastic about it," Yonover says. "We didn't see any conflict with Phoenix International. We saw our events as complementary."

The mayor's office regarded the plan as a potential plus. The Phoenix area is a patchwork of municipalities that have spent years poaching sports events and major league teams from one another: Among other moves, the PGA Tour's Phoenix Open has moved from Phoenix to Scottsdale and the NHL's Coyotes have moved from Phoenix to Glendale. "It's been a net gain of zero for the greater community," says Scott Phelps, a spokesman for the mayor. "We thought that when someone proposes a new event with new money, we ought to take a look at it."

The raceway -- which is in Avondale, 30 miles from downtown -- chose to view the proposal as a poisoned chalice, its mid-November date too close for comfort to a major NASCAR race generally held at the track the second weekend of that month. The regional motor sports audience would be so diluted by two events in such proximity that both would suffer, track officials argue.

Champ Car says it can't imagine why the raceway would be concerned about its proposed scheduling. "We're not the same audience, demographics or part of town," says Steve Johnson, Champ Car's president. "We don't feel we're going to impact their race at all."

Nevertheless, in early May, the track's president, Bryan Sperber, sent a letter warning Gordon of the risks of dealing with a "minor league organization" and reminding him that a downtown street race organized in the late 1980s had been an "abject failure." On a local radio program, he disparaged the proposed event as "a stupid, Mickey Mouse, dinky-toy race."

Sperber now acknowledges that his language went over the top. "Emotions were running pretty high," he says. "I probably said some things that had an edge to them."

But he took other steps, such as more than doubling the track's roster of lobbying firms at the state capitol to 13. This firepower appeared to have an effect, as leading state politicians started questioning the grand prix proposal in terms similar to Sperber's.

Some also seized on his hint that were the street race approved, NASCAR might cancel one of its two annual race dates at Phoenix International -- as implausible as that would seem, given NASCAR's interlocking ownership with the track. Local businesses and politicians believe the races, which each bring 100,000 spectators to the track, rank as tourist events nearly on the scale of the Super Bowl.

Meanwhile, a measure surfaced in the Legislature prohibiting the staging of any "motor vehicle competition" in Arizona except within a "closed-course motor sport facility" -- that is, a facility very much like Phoenix International. The bill applied to any competition generating noise higher than 90 decibels, which is about the level of city traffic.

The legislation might have been a fatally overplayed hand. "People were somewhat in awe that they could be so blatant," Yonover said. "Even a tractor-pull at Chase Field," the downtown home of the Diamondbacks, "would have been outlawed."

The bill was soon tabled amid instructions from legislative leaders for the two sides to meet and settle their differences -- preferably by juggling their race dates to put more daylight between them. By then, however, charges of bad faith had been flying from both sides for weeks.

In mid-May, for example, Champ Car accused Brian France and James C. France, the chief executives of NASCAR and International Speedway, of "a disinformation campaign based on half-truths and unsupported innuendo." Yonover contends Sperber confided to him at a meeting May 10 that "the France family considers themselves to be the stewards of all motor sports," suggesting that they wouldn't tolerate the competition.

Sperber denies that he ever represented himself as speaking for the family. "They're trying to make this into a conspiracy issue," he says of Champ Car. "Never in my career have I claimed I worked for NASCAR."

It is conceivable that NASCAR would be concerned about the resurgence of open-wheel racing, including the addition of a Phoenix race to its schedule. The two circuits are dramatically different. NASCAR automobiles are refined versions of traditional American family sedans run almost exclusively on closed oval tracks; Champ Car racers are high-tech vehicles that resemble earthbound jet planes, run mostly on twisty road courses. Champ Car fans are slightly more affluent on average but less intensely devoted than NASCAR's.

But NASCAR might owe at least some of its explosive growth over the last decade to the disaffection of open-wheel fans. Its growth spurt coincided with open-wheel's split into two competing circuits -- the Indy Racing League and Championship Auto Racing Teams, or CART. The split so weakened the sport that CART filed for bankruptcy in 2003; its assets were acquired by a group led by Kevin Kalkhoven, a former Silicon Valley executive, who reestablished the entity as Champ Car.

Kalkhoven hopes to lure racing fans back with more events and is in talks with IRL boss Tony George to reunify the leagues. Any open-wheel revival might present NASCAR with a competitive challenge, although few people, including Champ Car executives, believe that open-wheel racing will ever again surpass NASCAR's popularity in the U.S.

For now, the fight over the Phoenix race is being waged over simple fiscal and logistical issues. The city council has asked the city manager's office to investigate such issues as the potential costs of the race -- although the promoters say they will shoulder the estimated $15-million first-year bill for street work, race barriers, and fire and police coverage and $8 million in recurrent annual costs -- and report back in late summer. Sperber and Yonover are scheduled to meet Monday to try to craft a schedule that will eliminate conflicts between their races.

But the biggest obstacle to the proposal might be the acrid memory of Phoenix's last foray into grand prix racing. This was a Formula One race that wound through downtown for three years starting in 1989. Convinced that the race would showcase its vibrant charm, the city had bid $8 million for a five-year contract, giving it exclusive U.S. rights to the exacting circuit.

But downtown workers resented track barriers that forced them to walk blocks out of their way to reach their offices. Commuter traffic was gridlocked by race preparations. The first year's race was held in June, when a temperature exceeding 100 degrees reduced the gate to about 30,000. The event was moved to March for each of the next two years, but attendance kept falling. By 1991, there were scarcely 15,000 spectators, including concessionaires and crowd control marshals. To the city's undisguised relief, Formula One threw in the towel on the fiasco and canceled the final two races.

"The experience was so negative that I'm shocked we would consider it again," says Tom Simplot, a city councilman who says he will vote against the street race no matter what the city manager reports.

The Champ Car promoters say their event will be fundamentally different. Their route will encircle a part of town largely occupied by warehouses, not office towers. They also pledge to promote the venture energetically.

For the moment, both sides are promising to compromise. But both say their league schedules, among other things, limit them to holding their races within a tight window between Nov. 1 and Thanksgiving. That leaves precious little room for a friendly accord.

"If this is something the city wants to do, we're not going to stand in their way," Sperber says. "But as a citizen of Arizona, I would hope the city would approach this opportunity with its eyes open."

Yonover says he has been steeled by months of lobbying and rhetoric by the racetrack to expect more roadblocks. "Until the day after our race," he says, "I'll be on my guard."

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