HoJo's To Miami Motorsports: No Prix Fee for Thee!

Grand Prix poobah Ralph Sanchez went to the downtown Howard Johnson's with his hand outstretched. And an ultimatum.

At least in terms of its location, there isn't all that much to recommend the Howard Johnson Port of Miami Hotel. The view across Biscayne Boulevard - Bicentennial Park and the port beyond - isn't bad, but nor is it anything to write home about to the folks back in Paducah. The city's homeless frequent the drab streetscape below. A few blocks south of the hotel with the trademark bright-orange entrance is the new, unremarkable Greyhound-Trailways bus station. Immediately north of the seven-story structure, the perpetual race of Miami Beach traffic takes place along overworked I-395.

Once every year, though, a different sort of race comes to town, and the gods of good fortune smile down on the little Howard Johnson by the bay. During the weekend of February 22, the tenth annual Grand Prix of Miami roars through Bicentennial Park and along Biscayne Boulevard, right in front of the hotel. Management jacks up the rate for a night's stay to $300, imposes a three-night minimum, and without fail, all 100 rooms are booked.

The hotel's $90,000-plus gold mine has not escaped the notice of Grand Prix promoter Ralph Sanchez and his bean counters. Faced each year with a bill for nearly four million dollars and always on the alert for possible sources of revenue, Sanchez recently drafted a letter to Bryan Thompson, the hotel's general manager, practically demanding a cut of the profits: "The Grand Prix is a huge undertaking with costs escalating on an annual basis," wrote Sanchez in his January 6 missive. "In order for us to continue to bring this community events, which will impact the hotel industry as well as the local economy, we must find ways to help subsidize the events. As such, we are going to those businesses that benefit from the Grand Prix in order to help amortize the increasing costs. The Howard Johnson Port of Miami, being a prime beneficiary of the Grand Prix, must step up to the plate and help the event. I believe a fair proposal would be to share with you on an equal basis any increase in revenues that you would enjoy over your standard rates."

With their standard rates currently in the $79 neighborhood, Howard Johnson's management isn't exactly eager to play Good Samaritan to the needy Sanchez. "We're not going to pay additional fees just because we're situated where we're situated," asserts Lenny Stark, area manager for Universal Hotels, which owns the downtown inn and four other Howard Johnson hotels in the Miami area. After consulting with their attorney, Richard Pettigrew, hotel managers decided to make the issue public. "We found ourselves in a position that was untenable and, we felt, very, very wrong. We're attempting to correct the wrong," explains Stark.

Pettigrew drafted a letter of his own, which he had hand-delivered to the office of Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez. "Since Miami Motorsports is a licensee of the city of Miami, I thought that you might be interested in its `fundraising' activities in connection with the Grand Prix," the attorney wrote. "I am sure that the city does not condone such strong-arm tactics on the part of its licensees, and I trust that you will ensure that Miami Motorsports will not undertake any punitive action against the hotel."

Pettigrew, who had reason to anticipate "punitive action" on the part of Ralph Sanchez, enclosed a sworn affidavit signed by Bryan Thompson, in which the hotel manager describes how the promoter and his attorney, Ron Book, had attempted for months to extract a contribution from the Howard Johnson's proprietors.

Thompson's affidavit recounts how in early November, days before the Miami Motorcycle Grand Prix - another Sanchez-staged event - Sanchez and Book, an influential lobbyist before the Florida Legislature in Tallahassee, paid him a visit and requested a percentage of the hiked-up room revenue generated by those races. (The hotel raised its rates to $150 per night for the two-year-old contest, which draws about 30,000 fans, as opposed to upward of 80,000 spectators who attend the annual auto race.) They asked for $30,000. If the money was not immediately forthcoming, Thompson says Sanchez and Book advised him, workers from Miami Motorsports would erect an enormous banner advertising the event's corporate sponsors and blocking the view of Howard Johnson's patrons. (Sanchez says Thompson is mistaken: he didn't go to the meeting at all; he sent Book and another Miami Motorsports official as representatives.)

When Thompson refused to hand over the cash, employees brought a pair of cranes to put up a 60-foot-high banner, but the effort was abandoned at the last minute. Four days after the motorcycle races, however, Thompson received a letter from Robert Wild, vice president of marketing for Miami Motorsports. "Please call me as soon as possible so that we might avoid any embarrassment for your hotel during our event next year," Wild wrote.

Later, according to Thompson's affidavit, during a second meeting on December 30, Sanchez and Wild told Thompson that "Miami Motorsports was having financial problems, and that 1992 was a `make or break' year for the Grand Prix." They said they wanted to resolve the unpleasant situation in a friendly manner. To wit: The hotel was to make a "voluntary contribution" of $40,000 for the auto race. And, they added, if payment wasn't made by February 21, the barrier would go up.

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