• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

SHERIFF JOE vs. CHAMP CAR

It seems all-but-certain that Champ Cars will be racing on the streets of downtown Phoenix in December 2007 but drivers could be forced to navigate the most unusual chicane in racing history -- Sheriff Joe Arpaio's tank and SWAT team. No, I am NOT making this up!

I attended Tuesday's two-hour-plus City Council meeting, where in a voice vote, Mayor Phil Gordon joined the majority in favor of authorizing the city manager to negotiate a contract with race promoters Dale Jensen and Bradley Yonover. By far the most interesting news, however, came when a representative for Arpaio (left) addressed Council members. The Maricopa County sheriff is against the race for "public safety" reasons, including the fact that a 9-1-1 emergency call center borders the two-mile course.

Mary Millard, commander of Arpaio's communications division, testified before the Council. She repeated the reasons for Arpaio's opposition and concluded by reading a statement from the sheriff: "If (the race) disrupts the operations of the 9-1-1 center and causes concern for public safety," Arpaio will "block the street with his tank and SWAT team."

Arpaio is the colorful and flamboyant self-proclaimed "toughest sheriff in America" -- who houses inmates in a tent city, makes them wear pink underwear, feeds them bologna sandwiches and organizes chain gangs -- and became known to racers for busting Kurt Busch during the fall 2005 NASCAR weekend at Phoenix International Raceway. Millard carefully repeated the "tanks and SWAT team" statement to a battery of TV and radio microphones outside Council chambers. Wanting to make sure I had this absolutely correct, I spoke one-on-one with Millard after that, and she said it again directly to me!

The 9-1-1 call center issue was addressed by the Council staff in making a recommendation to the politicos to authorize contract negotiations. An industry expert testified about decibel levels and outlined his plans to dampen engine sounds at the building. He proposed a system of plastic coverings and cargo containers (to deflect) and drapes (to absorb) noise and said the end result would be the center would be slightly quieter than normal.

Although the staff stressed that "not one word is on paper," here are some key points that came out of the meeting:

* Last-hour negotiations resulted in a "memoradium of understanding" between the promoters and opponent-in-chief Bryan Sperber, president of Phoenix International Raceway. The two groups will cooperate on joint promotions. Sperber testified that "whatever issues we've had are in the past" and described the document as a "productive agreement."

* Sperber, who wanted a 30-day gap between the November Chase race at PIR and Champ Car, settled for a bit less. The Champ Car dates for 2007 will be Nov. 30, Dec. 1-2, three weeks after the original date, which was one week after NASCAR's visit to the Valley. In 2008, the schedule is for Nov. 21-23, two weeks after the checkered flag waves at PIR. Beyond that, the date will be mutually agreed to no later than August of the prior year, with either the Council or an arbitrator settling any dispute.

* NBC will televise the race "live" with SPEED providing additional coverage.

* The city will bear none of the costs. All expenses, including police and fire support and road repairs, will be the promoter's responsibility.

* The layout will incorporate entry-and-exit access points that can be used at any time.

* The course runs along the under-construction light rail line but race cars will not cross the tracks. One separate section of unused tracks will be removed and another section that is utilized on a near-daily basis will be repaired.

* Testimony revealed the three-day "Festival of Speed" will include a "green Expo, 'Taste of Phoenix' (food), concerts, art show, Extreme sports and maybe boxing."

* If Champ Car and the IRL merge, Phoenix's place on a combined schedule "is secured by contract."

* Champ Car President Steve Johnson, in responding to a Councilman's question about the financial stability of the organization, said the company is owned by "four people, two of whom are billionaires." This was news to me because all public statements I know of, and the series media guide, say the owners are Kevin Kalkhoven, Gerald Forsythe and Paul Gentilozzi. I wanted to ask Johnson the identity of the mystery fourth partner, but he rushed out moments after the meeting ended. I have sent an E-mail to CC PR director Steve Shunck requesting this identity.

The Council's approval wasn't unanimous and, in fact, a motion to reject the staff's "go" recommendation was made but voted down. No time frame was revealed to complete contract negotiations.

Yonover thanked Council for enduring "a somewhat contentious discussion of our event" and for "keeping an open mind." He said the event will "highlight and showcase the redevelopment of downtown Phoenix."

Unless Sheriff Joe stands firm. In that case, we'd witness the biggest spectacle since Humpy Wheeler threatened to have tow trucks remove network TV production trailers from Charlotte in 2001 when NBC/TNT wouldn't refer to the track as "Lowe's" Motor Speedway. (!)

I'll have more on all of this soon . . .


[ more Blogging the Chase next Tuesday (10/3), if not before . . . ]