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It's a Street Fight

Organizers are trying to put together a Champ Car race in Phoenix, but the speedway (meaning NASCAR, as some believe) is opposed

July 16, 2006|Michael A. Hiltzik | Times Staff Writer

PHOENIX — 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."

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