Organizers race to keep series stop in Portland

Time is ticking away on Portland's chances of staging another CART race, the staple of the local racing scene and a fixture of the Rose Festival since 1984.

By next Friday, the race could be out of gas.

Mike Nealy, president of the race promotion company Global Events Group, has been busy courting potential corporate sponsors for a race tentatively scheduled for June 18 to June 20 at Portland International Raceway Ñwithout much luck.

Paul Gentilozzi, co-owner of the Open Wheel Racing Series group that is trying to navigate the Championship Auto Racing Teams series through bankruptcy proceedings, is putting the onus on Portland race supporters to secure sponsorship and pay a sanctioning fee.

'I'm certain we're going racing. We'll have a series,' Gentilozzi says. 'If Portland wants a race, they'll have to show that by signing a sanctioning agreement.

'Other venues are selling tickets. I guess they have more confidence in us.'

Gentilozzi says other venues want Portland's tentative race date. He also claims the series has 18 cars committed for 2004, with Bridgestone and Ford as major sponsors. 'Everyone has stuck with this deal,' he says.

Still, questions remain as to whether the series will survive, or if it does, if it will be a legitimately big draw.

Portland organizers want to say yea or nay to a 2004 race by Jan. 16. But to further complicate matters, a bankruptcy court will not hear CART sales proposals until Jan. 28.

'That's really the challenge (of selling), the uncertainty of the series itself,' Nealy says.

G.I. Joe's: in or out?

One source says G.I. Joe's does not plan to renew its agreement to be the title sponsor of a Portland race. Norm Daniels, president of G.I. Joe's, would say only, 'We would like to look at all avenues and make sure that the event will be up to, or exceed, the standards that the race fan expects in Portland.'

Daniels and others want CART to survive.

The entity will go private and take on the name Champ Car World Series if Gentilozzi's group successfully buys the assets. But the Rose Festival lost money on the PIR race for the first time in 2002. And last year, when Global became the sole race promoter, attendance slipped even more.

Concession sales, an indicator of race attendance, have slipped 48 percent since 2000.

The CART series has lost some of its luster in recent years, as many high-profile teams and drivers have jumped to the rival Indy Racing League. And CART, which has suffered through managerial and financial turmoil trying to stay afloat, has lost more than $90 million since the start of 2002.

Still, Nealy intimates that he could virtually put 18 Studebakers on the PIR track and put butts in seats to watch them. But he needs financial backing, such as another title sponsor to go along with G.I. Joe's.

'It's strictly a financial situation,' Nealy says. 'If there's not the community support Ñ corporate support Ñ then maybe the community doesn't want it.

'The part that's frustrating for me is I think the event represents more than just a car race. I think it's a loss to the community as a whole, if it goes away.'

Meanwhile, Mark Wigginton, the PIR manager, sits and waits. Normally he has the next year's PIR schedule set in October.

Another entity, the Oregon Motorcycle Roadracing Association, would like the June 18-20 weekend for an event. So there will be racing at PIR Ñof some sort Ñthe third week of June.

'I told Mike (Nealy) I would give him the dates, but we need a firm commitment,' Wigginton says. 'I would like CART, because I think it's good for the city.'

Wigginton chairs a committee appointed by city Commissioner Jim Francesconi to look at potential events for PIR, including a replacement race for CART. Daniels and Bob Ames, both founders of the CART race, also sit on the committee. Some talk revolves around the NASCAR Northwest Tour and Southwest Tour, probably run the previous weekend, as part of Rose Cup races.

It could be the rebirth of the Rose Cup as the main racing event around town.

'We're up for any race somebody can put on,' Ames says. 'I wish we could have a (CART) event. There's still a reasonable number of people who like to go, even though they're mediocre races. But we want the racetrack to be healthy and survive.

'We're all waiting to see what happens with CART.'

Lawsuits possible

Open Wheel would pay $1.6 million under its agreement to buy CART, but also must issue 2003 winnings to some teams, making the price closer to $3 million. And the new owners could face lawsuits from disgruntled stockholders.

If Open Wheel doesn't take over, the series more than likely dies, says CART spokesman Eric Mauk. 'But the court won't make the final decision (Jan. 28),' he says.

The ironic thing is, one very rich racing mogul could purchase CART and its assets, shut it down or make it work: its nemesis, IRL founder Tony George.

The city has a handshake agreement with Christopher Pook, CART's lame duck chief executive officer, to stage races at PIR for three more years.

'But the concern now is we're starting to run out of time,' says Kevin Jeans-Gail, Francesconi's chief of staff. Francesconi oversees Portland Parks & Recreation, which manages the track.

Jeans-Gail says the city has offered lower rental fees, and the Rose Festival will take virtually nothing from the event.

'We need certainty,' he says. 'Everybody's stretching to make it work. If we don't get certainty soon, we're in trouble.'

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