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The Dismal Record of those Urban Festivals Print
Written by Tom Kjos   
Mar 05, 2008 at 02:12 PM

"Houston cancelled," it says.  Ho hum. Are you surprised? We aren’t, and a look at the record of the municipal temporary street courses in North America that have hosted major professional racing, including the Motorock and Urban Festival of Speed events makes it perfectly clear why.

If ever there was a record of abysmal failure, this is it. Cost, politics, suitability for modern race cars, fan experience have all been questionable. We could spend pages analyzing the reasons each of them were abandoned, but that would be both fruitless and boring. Cost, politics, suitability for modern race cars, fan experience all have all been factors.

The public reason for the demise is often different than the real cause. San Jose is a case in point. Champ Car and the promoters announced that “pending” downtown development would re-route the course and eliminate key grandstands. Poppycock. The San Jose Mercury News poked holes in that. The “plans” for development of the property cited had been around for years before the advent of the race, and there was no new immediate intent to proceed. In fact, real attendance was far short of “announced,” (CCWS was caught figure-inflating after year one), and the city had to pony up millions to bail out losses for an event that had weak political support from the start. As soon as the city refused to commit to continuing subsidies, the event folded.

The Children’s Grand Prix of Minneapolis was launched as a Trans Am event that would contribute its net proceeds to the Cancer KIDS Foundation – $1 million per year. It never came close, piling up losses in each of the three years – 1996, 97, and 98 – that it ran. Some contributions to charity were made, far less than the $1 million wanted, and from the pockets of the founders rather than from the non-existent “net.” Noise, downtown disruption, and lousy attendance ended its run.

It’s almost always the same pattern. A city is approached by promoters (often associated with the headline racing series) who promise large but unprovable “economic benefit.” The city foots the bill for the temporary course and for police and emergency services. The event (Minneapolis was one of the first to do so) is wrapped in the cloak of a “charitable event.” Concerts are scheduled. The event goes on with inflated attendance numbers. The benefits to a few (barkeeps, mostly) are largely offset by the loss of access and traffic suffered by others – department store and specialty merchants, for instance. Losses pile up. The town fathers subsidize another year or two – the promoter’s pitch is that “it takes a couple of years for the event to ‘mature’ and for investment in (movable) infrastructure to be amortized.” Elected officials soon feel the heat and pull the plug. The racing series has collected an (inflated) sanctioning fee and moves on.

We’ve long believed that these events are doomed to fail, and have been a significant contributing factor in the collapse of both Trans Am and Champ Car, each of which made them a core part of their business plan.

You may disagree with the details. You can undoubtedly point other reasons for cancellation of some of these events. Remember, though, that even Long Beach piled up huge losses and was close to cancellation before its acquisition by a business entity of Champ Car’s proprietors. Trois Rivieres, in Quebec – the longest running North American street course event – suspended operations for a year after losing its significant tobacco industry funding, has usually headlined with “less costly” events, like Atlantics, and is largely staffed by unpaid volunteers.

Here are the twenty-eight municipalities that hosted forty-two iterations of different event “runs” of varying numbers of years with Trans Am, F1, (old) IMSA, (new) ALMS, Champ Car, and CART. All are gone, though Detroit and St. Petersburg, both already two-time losers, are back for another bite of the apple (or sip of the Kool-Aid). (Editor's note: since this was written, Detroit was cancelled, Toronto skipped a year, then came back to a lousy crowd and big losses, and St. Pete is rumored to be on the chopping block.)

Regardless of the reasons, the dismal record of cancelled events speaks for itself:

Columbus (IMSA)

Dallas – State Fairgrounds (F1 and Trans Am) Reunion Arena (Trans Am and IMSA) Addison Airport (Trans Am)

Denver (Champ Car/Trans Am)

Del Mar – Fairgrounds (IMSA)

Des Moines (Trans Am)

Detroit (F1 and CART)

Granby, Quebec (IMSA)

Grand Rapids (Trans Am)

Halifax, Nova Scotia (IMSA)

Houston (Champ Car/ALMS)

Las Vegas (F1 and Champ Car)

Miami (Champ Car/ALMS) Tamiami (CART) Bicentennial Park/Biscayne Boulevard (IMSA and CART and Trans Am)

Minneapolis (Trans Am/USRRC)

New Jersey – Meadowlands (CART)

New Orleans (IMSA)

Niagara Falls (Trans Am)

Palm Beach – Downtown & Fairgrounds (IMSA)

Phoenix (F1 and Champ Car)

Reno (Trans Am)

San Diego (ALMS scheduled/cancelled and Trans Am)

St. Petersburg (Trans Am and CART)

San Antonio (IMSA)

San Jose (Champ Car)

San Juan, PR (Trans Am)

Tampa – Fairgrounds (IMSA)

Toronto (CART and Champ Car)

Vancouver (CART/Trans Am)

Washington DC (ALMS)

Note: “and” denotes separate events by different series in different years; “/” denotes shared event. Where different venues were run in a metro area they are listed. This list may not be complete, but we believe it is representative of the record.

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