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There is a saying—or at least there ought to be—that the driving force behind any project that doesn't appear to make sense is money. Take Sunday's Iceberg U.S.A. Grand Prix-Phoenix. The obvious question was: Why on earth would anyone stage an exotic race for foreign cars through the baking streets of a city in the middle of the Arizona desert in order to promote an Italian line of clothing called Iceberg, which isn't widely sold in the U.S.?
The answer to the riddle is well known to a diminutive English businessman and multimillionaire named Bernie Ecclestone, 52. A brief summary of Ecclestone's career goes like this: He started selling motorcycles and used cars in London, made enough money to get involved in Grand Prix racing in the '60s. and did pretty well at it, buying his own team in 1971. He became president of the Formula One Constructors Association (FOCA), an organization of the Grand Prix racing teams, and recently bought a mansion near London from arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, whose current address is a Swiss prison. Ecclestone's work keeps him wheeling and dealing around the world.
But back to the desert. The story of the Phoenix Grand Prix actually began in 1976 in Long Beach, Calif. Long Beach, which was fraying around the edges at the time, decided to hold a Formula One race through its streets to draw attention to the city, and in that respect, the event succeeded; downtown Long Beach has boomed, and some of the credit must be given to the Grand Prix. The F/1 machines have since touched down in Las Vegas, Dallas and, most recently, Detroit. But when Detroit's deal with F/1 ended after last year's Grand Prix, Phoenix, which had been pushing Ecclestone's FOCA for a race for three years, landed the event. In January, the city council held a special meeting and voted 7-1 to go for it.
The decision was not applauded by all, however, because the cost to local taxpayers will be about $8 million over the five years of the contract with FOCA. And a lot of local folks couldn't even afford to attend Ecclestone's extravaganza: Standing-room-only tickets were $35 for Sunday's race, while a grandstand seat shaded from the 100� heat went for $200 for a three-day package. And the fact that Ecclestone was a promoter of the event as well as the head of the racers' organization—not an uncommon arrangement—was hard for some to swallow.
Defending the race was Duane Pell, chairman of the city council's subcommittee on sports. A native of Phoenix who spent 22 years as a city fireman before running for office, Pell figured that a small invasion of funny-talking, effete-looking Europeans would be good for his pickup-truck-driving, cowboy-boot-wearing constituents—folks just like him, he says—under the trickle-down theory.
"The city's role is clearly defined." he said last week. "We build and maintain the circuit, and that's it. No city money goes to Ecclestone, and all the profits or losses are his. It'll cost us $3 million this year and about $1.2 million per year after that. When you figure how much outside money will be brought into the economy, it's the best pro sports deal on the table. I'm convinced that this is good for the city."
Phoenix wants to become a mecca of international commerce and tourism, and the main idea behind luring the race to the Arizona desert was to romance the multinational corporate executives that the event's sponsors would bring to the event. Said Pell, "All you need is one or two of the decision-makers to like the area and decide to locate here."
Equally important to the city fathers—as well as to the major sponsor, Iceberg, a product name all but lost on American consumers—was the television exposure. ESPN's satellite feed was beamed to some 80 countries and more than 200 million viewers.
Phoenix did a remarkable job of putting the race together in a mere 4� months. All was in readiness by the time the "dog and pony show," as Ecclestone called it, arrived in a caravan of semis that had traveled nonstop from Mexico City, the site of the previous Formula One race. The 2.36-mile, 14-turn circuit through downtown Phoenix was wide and relatively fast—a vast improvement over Detroit, the drivers agreed.
The drivers, mostly little fellows with exotic names like Tarquini, Nannini and Gugelman, comported themselves much as they do on the more traditional stops on the tour. Formula One drivers are athletes whose intensity toward their sport and indifference to fans and the media are often seen as arrogance. Consider world champion Ayrton Senna of Brazil: With a retainer of more than $5 million per year from his Marlboro McLaren- Honda team, he doesn't need to be popular. "They want to take their money, go to the bank, get in their jets and disappear," said Ecclestone.