Sudden Wayne Change

Wayne Huizenga drives a hard bargain at Homestead racetrack -- he'll make millions while Dade taxpayers are taken for a ride

Less than four years after persuading Dade County and the city of Homestead to spend upwards of $60 million in tax dollars on a giant motorsports complex in South Dade, the operators of the facility are quietly negotiating the sale of their lease -- a deal that would allow them to walk away from the project while pocketing as much as $32 million in cash.

In September 1995, while the new track was still under construction, the City of Homestead signed an 80-year lease with Miami Motorsports Joint Venture (MMJV), a partnership made up of Grand Prix race promoter Ralph Sanchez and South Florida entertainment and sports mogul H. Wayne Huizenga. The city owns the 65,000-seat racetrack, officially known as the Metro-Dade Homestead Motorsports Complex; the lease gives Huizenga and Sanchez control over all operations and events in exchange for annual rent that will total $1.8 million this year.

In early January MMJV entered into discussions with International Speedway Corp., a publicly traded company controlled by 64-year-old stock car impresario William C. France. France's family popularized the modern sport of stock car racing and today maintains a monopoly over the $2.2 billion industry through its ownership of tracks, leases, sponsorship contracts, broadcast and merchandising rights, and the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR), a governing body that coordinates and sanctions all of the top races.

In mid-February, Sanchez and Huizenga's representatives met in private with individual Homestead City Council members, seeking support for the sale of the racetrack lease and indicating that they were close to cinching a deal with France. The lease sellout was scheduled to be discussed publicly for the first time this past Monday, with Homestead's city council poised to offer Huizenga and Sanchez conditional approval of a new lease in exchange for seven million dollars -- the necessary next step in jump-starting stalled negotiations with France.

Sanchez, whose personality, drive, and long-term commitment to the track were crucial factors in winning public support for its construction, says he's still committed. Sale of the lease, he acknowledges, would make him a multimillionaire, but he insists that money isn't his primary motive and that a deal with France would best serve the interests of taxpayers. Sanchez contends that a lease sellout is the only realistic way to bring a coveted NASCAR Winston Cup Series race to Homestead and transform the popular but as-yet-unprofitable motorsports complex into America's premier race destination.

"If I didn't have to sell I wouldn't sell, but this is the reality of the situation," Sanchez says. "It's very simple. The facility needs a Winston Cup date, and the only way I can see to get it is what we're doing now."

Though the track currently hosts the Marlboro Grand Prix of Miami and a Busch Grand National Series stock car race, these are minor-league events compared to the Winston Cup, a schedule of 32 events held throughout the year in different U.S. cities. A Winston Cup race typically extends over three or four days and at times attracts more fans than a Super Bowl. In 1995 the series pulled in 5.3 million paying spectators, plus another 14 million television viewers. Annual Winston Cup attendance has quadrupled since 1980 and helped make stock car racing the fastest-growing pro sport in the nation.

Sanchez promises he'll stay on as president of MMJV for the next eight years even if the lease sale does transpire. At the same time, however, city officials confirm that representatives of the Huizenga-Sanchez partnership have been lobbying Homestead to do away with a troublesome clause in the current lease. It requires Sanchez to show up every day for ten years and devote 75 percent of his time to the track.

"The substantial personal involvement of Sanchez in the operation of the Project is the primary inducement for the City entering into this Lease," the clause reads. "Sanchez's failure to devote a substantial amount of his time and energy to the Project will have a material adverse impact on the Project, the City and the individuals who reside or work in the City."

The motive for eliminating the clause, Sanchez says: A new owner such as France might not want to retain his services as operations manager, and so the requirement is a sticking point in any sale negotiation.

After first rejecting a one-million-dollar cash offer by Huizenga and Sanchez to rewrite the lease, Homestead politicians have come up with a counterproposal: seven million dollars. Any change requires majority approval of Homestead's seven-member city council.

County commissioners, by contrast, won't get a chance to vote on the lease sale, and the county won't receive a penny of payment -- despite having doled out $31 million in taxpayers' money for the track's construction. Some of them are far from happy with the prospect of a lease reassignment, and suggest that the public is morally -- if not legally -- entitled to a cut of the proceeds.

Former Dade County commissioner Maurice Ferre grudgingly went along with a majority of his commission colleagues in February 1993 when the county added $20 million derived from a sports-related bond issue to $11 million in hotel bed-tax monies already promised to Homestead. "Should the county have put controls on this? Absolutely. We screwed up," Ferre says. "I bawled and screamed about it at the time, and now here we are. I still wonder how we could have allowed this to happen.

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