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It's Saturday afternoon, October 5, just before the start of the inaugural Grand Prix Americas, the brand-new ultra-chic three-day motorsport extravaganza that commandeered the streets of downtown Miami last weekend. The heat's unbearable on this stretch of Biscayne Boulevard -- from NE Third to NE Sixth.
Curvy, Latina TV actress Sofia Vergara, the Grand Marshall, is posing for pictures with Miami Mayor Manny Diaz. Singers Boyz II Men and the new dons of Miami automania, local architect and developer Willy Bermello and local lawyer Peter Yanowitch, are beaming grotesquely. The atmosphere is all Miami: plastic, self-absorbed, obnoxious, and as several dozen drivers bake like candy apples in their fire-resistant racesuits, anxiously awaiting the gunshot, the two friendly power brokers can only marvel at the spectacle they've created.
They put it together in typical SoFla fashion -- through a no-bid deal brokered with city officials who ignored their own competitive bidding rules and issued an illegal permit so the Grand Prix Americas (GPA) could go off on schedule and "help Miami," including its small businesses.
Already there is a scheme under way to shift the racecourse north to "make it more exciting," eliminating the route that runs along DuPont Plaza, allowing cars to pass each other. Next year's GPA might include Bicentennial Park, which, ironically, was part of the old, infamous Miami Grand Prix deal cooked up by promoter Ralph Sanchez and the city in 1985. Seven years ago historian Paul George dryly noted that Sanchez's deal, which allowed him to tear up the park to build the track, also required him to restore things when he took his road show to the Homestead-Miami Speedway, the current home of the Miami Grand Prix (the GPA's rival). Naturally Sanchez didn't, and naturally nothing happened to him.
It's a little after noon on Thursday, October 3. Bermello and Yanowitch grandly arrive at the Grand Prix Americas press luncheon at the Miami City Club. Officials from Raceworks, the company they own, and reps from the Le Mans Series and Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART), the two racing leagues participating in the GPA (CART also bills itself as a Raceworks "partner"), are greeting reporters. Willy and Pete occupy a window overlooking the race course -- a serpentine winding through Biscayne, Bayfront Park, and Bayside Marketplace.
"That's first-class," Bermello crows as he points down to the white-canopied VIP suites, concrete barriers, and mountains of Firestone Wilderness tires along the track's perimeter.
Two weeks ago Miami commissioners admitted the planning and zoning department had issued an illegal permit that allowed the construction of the "first-class" race circuit. (The department failed to properly address safety concerns.) To fix the problem, city commissioners instructed planning and zoning staff to address the safety issues after the race was over(a Miami solution!). The GPA went on despite its invalid city permit.
Four-thirty p.m., Saturday, October 5. Well-heeled men and women dressed in Prada, Coach, and Gucci congregate in trackside suites surrounding the Lalique Club ($500 a pop, $6000 a table). Over at Bermello's suite, Pete remembers a clandestine lunch two years ago, when he first approached Willy with the race idea.
"He caught the vision just like I had that racing was a significant part of the cultural legacy of Miami. It gave me the incentive to bring it back." (For ten years, Sanchez had put on the Miami Grand Prix downtown. Then in 1995, Sanchez cut a better deal with the Homestead-Miami Speedway, and moved south.) So Willy and Peter took several private meetings with, among others, then-Mayor Joe Carollo and Jim Jenkins, executive director of the Miami Sports & Exhibition Authority, and Raceworks got a two-million-dollar loan.
That made it easy for Bermello, Yanowitch, and CART to get their sweetheart relationship with the city. Willy and Pete have yet to finalize their partnership with CART -- they're seeking to sell it 60 percent. This will happen if the two men succeed in defeating legal challenges raised by International Speedway Corp. (ISC), the company owned by William France of Daytona, the dominant force in stock car racing; he also manages the Homestead-Miami Speedway, the locus of the Miami Grand Prix (the successor to the original Miami street race dreamed up by Sanchez).
France objects to Willy and Pete's baby on the general principle that there should only be one big-assed racing event in these parts, and ISC's lawyers, alleging that the city had violated its own competitive bidding rules, got Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Michael J. Genden to rule the GPA "null and void" last March. The city and Raceworks then appealed Genden's ruling and modified their agreement, and that allowed the race.
Anyway, Raceworks currently has a 25-year license to put on the GPA and rake in millions. In return, the city and the Bayfront Park Trust receive only $100,000 from the promoters, as well as one buck for each ticket sold.
"I think the city did a great job with the deal," Diaz says, brazenly. "The important thing was to bring this [race] back to Miami." He added that no one had come forward to compete with Raceworks, despite the gibbering of the ISC good ol' boys from Daytona.
Still it's hard to believe that the city could not have done better negotiating. To get only a dollar for each ticket sold is a pittance when Chuck Martinez, Raceworks president, estimated between 20,000 and 30,000 people bought $35 to $100 general admission seats, while another estimated 5500 bought $500 VIP tickets. Raceworks stands to make at least $2.75 million in VIP ticket sales alone. And ticket sales don't include the money spent by corporate sponsors like Cadillac, Pioneer, and Presidente.
Even the Miami Herald got on the GPA bandwagon. A headline in last Friday's paper read: "No Good Ol' Boys Allowed at Miami Race." "This is a great shot in the arm for the city of Miami," Diaz babbled.
A walk down Flagler Street, however, where retail activity is on life support, didn't bear out Hizzoner's words. Roberto Fuentes, store manager of La Mirage Computers, said the GPA did little to boost sluggish sales. "September was almost fatal for us," he complained.
He gestured to the empty sidewalks two blocks from all the fenced-in hoopla of the GPA: "It's hard to attract customers when the streets are like this," he said. Somebody is making money, but not small merchants.