Race organizers hit rough spots on road to Miami Le Mans
By Paola Iuspa
As promoters try to accelerate Miami's marketing of a street race approved for downtown, there are other bumps in the road to the American Le Mans Series planned for April 5-7.
Those include a lawsuit from opponents who fear it will detract from Homestead Speedway and a delay in producing engineering plans to build the temporary racecourse.
In addition to these issues, City of Miami commissioners - after last week ratifying approval of a 15-year license for the race in Bayfront Park - gave event promoters the option to delay it to 2003.
"If you need another year in light of the 9/11, take the year," Commissioner Arthur Teele said, in reference to the nation's economic and travel problems following the terrorist attacks.
But, promoters, Raceworks LLC, said the Miami Le Mans will not be postponed. Willy Bermello, a principal with the firm, rejected the suggestion, saying the group had spent $2 million for concrete barriers and $500,000 with CBS for an 11/2-hour April 7 telecast.
Mr. Bermello and some commissioners also said they were worried the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau did not seem to be marketing the event locally or abroad. City officials said they were counting on the street race and the Orange Bowl as a short-term fix to replenish tourism dollars that stopped pouring into the economy after Sept. 11.
"I am disappointed," said Commissioner Tomás Regalado. "The Convention & Visitors Bureau has canceled several meetings with Raceworks. We need them to start an aggressive marketing campaign by January at the latest."
Mr. Regalado said the city is one of the largest contributors to the bureau and promoting a Miami event was its obligation.
Jeanne Sullivan, bureau spokeswoman, said she and other members had met two weeks ago with GDB+Partners, the marketing company hired by Raceworks. Mr. Regalado's son, Tomás Regalado Jr. is an account executive in that firm.
Mr. Bermello, head of a development company and an architecture firm, said the issue at stake was not whether they were meeting, but the lack of results.
Commissioners passed a resolution asking the bureau to assign a person full-time to work with travel agencies in Europe and Latin America to advertise and sell the event. They also called for the bureau to install street banners in January announcing the race and get new signs two weeks before the race. Bureau officials were asked to design a marketing strategy by the Dec. 13 city commission meeting.
Ms. Bermello said another community-based organization responsible for promoting business in the Greater Miami area "has been noticeably absent in the support of the race."
He said groups are trying to stay neutral because members have ties in South Miami-Dade, site of an established racetrack. The City of Homestead, which owns Homestead-Miami Speedway, and International Speedway Corp., which runs the venue, have publicly opposed the downtown street race.
The International Speedway Corp. sued the City of Miami in August in an effort to stop the race. The suit is pending.
Jorge Luis Lopez, attorney with Steel Hector & Davis representing the speedway, said his client is challenging the city's agreement with Raceworks. The suit argues negotiations were not open to the public, the city did not seek competitive bids before granting the license and did not follow state law on safety and environmental issues in areas used for street races, Mr. Lopez said.
"We want to protect our community investment in Homestead," he said, referring to the speedway, built in 1995 with taxpayer money. He said the Le Mans is scheduled two weeks before the Miami Grand Prix's 20th anniversary race in Homestead.
"It will create confusion," he said.
Another hurdle that needs to be overcome soon is the issuing of permits to help the state approve the traffic detours and race route - which will run down Biscayne Boulevard and minor downtown streets.
Promoters are responsible for the $4.2 million in road improvements needed for the race, Frank Rollason, assistant city manager said, and need to hurry to prepare engineering plans for the 11/2 mile-long course.
Federal Aviation Administration restrictions on air space after the terrorism attacks delayed the shooting of aerial photos needed for the road plans, Mr. Bermello said, but he said he expected to get those blueprints in by the end of the week. He hopes to start road improvements by Jan. 3.
In the meantime, Raceworks is opening an office on Biscayne Boulevard and negotiating with sponsors. The firm is also trying to get the Miami Sports & Exhibition Authority to invest $4.2 million for capital improvements needed to stage the race.
Raceworks, with attorney Peter Yanowitch and legendary racer Emerson Fittipaldi as partners, would return that investment within seven years. Once that money is paid, the deal calls for the authority to retain a 10% stake in the race.
Ferey Kian, authority director of finance, said agency's board was analyzing Raceworks' proposal.
Event promoters expect to make $5.4 million in revenues the first year, Mr. Bermello said. He said the number is based on 43,000 spectators but he hopes to attract 75,000.