GPA Redux

Chuck Martinez, Willy Bermello, and Peter Yanowitch, the masterminds behind the Grand Prix Americas -- the three-day racing extravaganza that commandeered the streets of downtown Miami October 4-6 -- have boasted that 75,000 to 100,000 people attended their event, pumping more than $28 million into the local economy via ticket, hotel, and concession sales.

The Grand Prix Americas' apparent success, they said, proved that Miami is still a marquee stage for sexy, cool auto racing even though the event's predecessor, the Grand Prix of Miami, had packed up seven years ago and moved south to the Homestead-Miami Speedway. After all, the organizers had to justify the city's decision to award them a no-bid deal and an illegal permit to stage the GPA, which featured three different races and three different racing leagues: the American Le Mans Series, the Trans-Am Series, and Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART). They also had to justify the two-million-dollar loan the GPA received from the Miami Sports & Exhibition Authority (an "independent" city entity) to subsidize the whole affair.

Surprisingly, however, Martinez and crew have scuttled plans to issue an economic impact report that could prove their gaudy estimates right or wrong. That decision comes just as the City of Miami's internal auditor, Victor Igwe, is reviewing the actual number of tickets sold for the event. Igwe declined comment, but a preliminary audit from Ticketmaster released last month shows that GPA organizers sold about half (12,037) the $35-to-$100 general admission tickets of the 24,099 printed. The remainder were given away or bartered in exchange for sponsorships. The event organizers also had capacity for another 13,000 people, but tickets were not printed due to lack of interest. These figures do not indicate the number of $500 VIP tickets sold.

The City of Miami is supposed to receive one buck for each ticket sold, according to the license agreement among the city, the Bayfront Park Management Trust, and Raceworks, LLC, the entity that staged GPA. Raceworks is currently owned by Miami power brokers Bermello and Yanowitch. Neither man returned phone calls seeking comment.

And GPA's general manager and president Martinez, whom PR whiz Seth Gordon set New Times up with in lieu of Bermello and Yanowitch, declined comment on the ticket issue. But Martinez volunteered that ticket sales represent only one part of a bigger equation that included 500 media people and dozens of racing teams, their families, and sponsors, who filled downtown hotel rooms and spent money (the media is the message!). Martinez added that the organizers' preliminary estimates indicated the event would generate $28 million into the local economy when the race was going to be held last April. That was before CART entered the picture and a Miami-Dade Circuit Court ruling voided the deal among the city, the trust, and Raceworks (before they came to terms).

"Conservatively, I'd say we generated at least twenty percent more than the projected $28 million after CART came aboard," Martinez said, his voice brimming with confidence. Yet he was not going to verify his bold projections. "We're not doing an economic impact report for this year's race based on the fact that we were playing catch-up and doing everything last-minute," Martinez reasoned. "Although we do plan to do a study next year."

Gil Katzman, sales and marketing director for the Intercontinental Hotel in downtown Miami, was initially skeptical about the GPA. But, Katzman revealed, the hotel ended up selling out all of its 641 rooms during the three-day race. "We did very well considering downtown is a businessman's environment and hotels tend to slow on the weekends," Katzman said, adding that he could not disclose room rates or the hotel's gross during the race. Other GPA reps, like event consultant Gordon, said an economic impact study is nothing more than a public relations ploy anyway: "The race organizers are happy, the city is happy, and the affected businesses are happy. So why would we do one? Now if New Times wants to commission a study and spend $10,000 to $15,000, you'd be doing the public a great service," Gordon said snarkily.

Kathleen Davis, executive director of the Sport Management Research Institute, a Weston-based company that conducts studies on major sports events, had a different take. "It is critical to study the economic impact of an event, especially those subsidized with public money," she said, adding that Raceworks initially contacted her to do a study for GPA, but never followed up.

Since the mid-1980s, Davis's company has completed surveys of the 1995 and 1999 Super Bowls held in Miami, and the 1997 World Series between the Florida Marlins and the Cleveland Indians, using an impact model that factors the amount of money spent by fans, out-of-town media, and corporate sponsors. She is currently wrapping up her second study on the NASCAR Championship Weekend at the Homestead-Miami Speedway last month.

Davis declined comment on her pending results but noted that in 1999, the first year NASCAR came to Homestead, it generated a $117 million economic impact locally. The studies were commissioned by the good ol' boys of auto racing, Daytona-based International Speedway Corporation (ISC), the company now operating Homestead-Miami Speedway. (ISC is the beneficiary of its own sweetheart deal with the City of Homestead, which allows the company to keep an estimated $55 million to $70 million in revenues generated at the city-owned speedway through 2032. It is GPA's rival.)

Miami Commissioner Johnny Winton doesn't even believe GPA bosses need to justify their impact on downtown Miami. Aside from the loan from the city's Sports & Exhibition Authority, Miami invested little in the GPA, he asserted. "I don't see any reasons to do a study," he said, also lauding GPA for pulling the event off despite interference from the ISC.

Until the last minute, ISC and its Miami law firm Steel, Hector, Davis did everything possible to stop the Grand Prix Americas on the simple premise that Miami-Dade County is only big enough for one auto-racing venue.

"It took resources away," Winton continued. "It took sponsors away. It could have sapped the energy from the event. I was surprised how well the race went off given the handicap from Homestead."

And while it appears that ISC has called off the dogs, Curtis Gray, president of Homestead-Miami Speedway, couldn't help but gloat about the number of tickets GPA sold. "The results we've seen are pretty consistent with what we told Miami commissioners would happen," he cracked from his room at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, where he was attending NASCAR's annual awards banquet. "I'm not allowed to disclose attendance figures. But I can tell you that our truck series race on November 14, which is the smallest of the championship weekend, sold more tickets than the three races combined for the Grand Prix Americas."