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
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.
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."
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
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.
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.