IndyCar racing dead in Cleveland for good?
Change is coming to the Indy Racing League. However, will Cleveland be a part of it? By 2012, the IRL will unveil a new chassis and engine package that figures to be cutting edge. With new internal management and an aggressive new title sponsor in Izod, the IRL is out to jump-start its image and its open-wheel product.
But does Cleveland fit into the IRL's future? All parties -- the city of Cleveland, the IRL and Mi-Jack Promotions -- agree, it's about money. Specifically, finding a title sponsor willing to offset what industry sources say can be a $6 million project annually to set up, tear down, pay fees and administrative costs, and more for the race at Burke Lakefront Airport.
"It is mainly a financial issue," said Ken Silliman, chief of staff for Mayor Frank Jackson. [Editor's Note: The Cleveland race failed for two reasons - 1) It was held every year during a hot and humid week and 2) fans are not going to sit in the flat rinky-dink bleachers on a hot day and roast. Plus the flat bleachers made it impossible to see the entire track even though race officials claimed you could. Bottom line - the race was lightly attended because fan comfort were horrible and they stopped coming.]
Since the IRL-Champ Car merger in 2008, the Grand Prix of Cleveland has not been part of the IRL's schedule. The first hurdle was too many combined races between the two leagues that led to Cleveland's event getting left out. Now, with low-attended oval events getting canceled in favor of new road and temporary circuits, a window of opportunity is available. But it is going to cost.
"It's apparent, given the higher price tag after the merged leagues, that we need to do much more fundraising than the last time ," Silliman said. "The question is going to be whether Cleveland's corporate community can raise sufficient funds to make this a possibility."
While the IRL was originally an oval racing series, it is no secret the league has turned toward replacing them with more marketable races on temporary circuits (Baltimore), or permanent road courses such as Mid-Ohio, 90 miles south of Cleveland, where series engine supplier Honda is the title sponsor. According to IRL officials, Mid-Ohio's contract is up after 2011.
There has been no official announcement about the IRL's 2011 schedule, but Mi-Jack, which has put on the Cleveland race since 2006 and is contracted with the city through 2012, has said Cleveland will not be on that 2011 plan.
"After careful consideration, Mi-Jack Promotions has determined that it is not possible to hold the Grand Prix of Cleveland in 2011," the company said in a recent release. "For the past two years, Mi-Jack Promotions has worked closely with officials from the Indy Racing League and the City of Cleveland with the goal of returning open-wheel racing to Burke Lakefront Airport.
"Progress was made and every practical scenario was considered. However, due to the economic realities of staging an event of this magnitude, it was determined that it was not possible for the Grand Prix to be viable in 2011. Moving forward, discussions are already under way with the Indy Racing League regarding 2012 and beyond.
"Despite the setback for 2011, Mi-Jack Promotions and the City of Cleveland remain committed to one day returning the Grand Prix of Cleveland to the shores of Lake Erie."
So is 2012 the last chance for open-wheel racing in Cleveland?
"We do not try to push too hard into markets," said IRL President Terry Angstadt during the Indianapolis 500 weekend. "If the community is not ready, or a promoter is not ready, we are probably not going to be successful. So there is no incentive for us to push into any market. And we love the place. We would love to have the conditions develop to allow us to come back there."
Meanwhile, other cities are stepping up. Birmingham, Ala., made it on the schedule this year. Baltimore is on the program for next year. With the IRL comfortable with a 17- or 18-race schedule, there are few openings. This is compounded by available race dates. Because of suspect weather in the spring and a lure to football as early as August, the last week of June through July is about the only realistic window of Cleveland opportunity.
In its heyday, the 26-year event on or around the Fourth of July weekend was worth $30 million to $50 million to the city economy, according to the Cleveland Convention and Visitors Bureau. The race also gave Cleveland a signature tourist event for the summer.
"Mayor Jackson would like to see the race return to Cleveland," Silliman said. "But we are going to need to see enough interest from Cleveland corporations to give us a shot at this. That's going to determine what our chances are."
Meanwhile, the city and Mi-Jack are open to title sponsorship money from outside the area as well. "We'll take sponsorship money from wherever it comes from," Silliman said.
All the while, lost time equals lost opportunities. Birmingham already has a spring date, Baltimore is on for August. The next city on board probably gets a summer date. So, 2012 could be now or never for Cleveland.
"I think, realistically, 2011 is out, 2012 is probably our last shot," said Don DiGeronimo, of Grand Prix Charities, which has been a part of the race since 1981.
"The city, the mayor, is totally committed. There are no issues there," said DiGeronimo, who is also president of Independence Communications. "But we probably got one more chance to get it back. The thing has been gone for so many years it's going to be hard to get momentum again. Once it comes back, it has to be back for a few years. It can't be a one-year deal."
"The city is on board, the IRL and the promoter," he said. "It's really just about finding the right business partner to make it successful in 2012. That's the goal. The challenge right now is securing the money."
Burke is not only at a place where fans can see it all, but on a track that is historically one of the fastest temporary circuits they can run on with plenty of room for passing.
"Attractive markets like that, where you can showcase your sport, where sponsors like to go, where there are business opportunities. ... We'd love to take advantage of that," Angstadt said of Cleveland. "So it's absolutely a market that our suppliers, sponsors, the league would love to be in."
Mi-Jack Promotions CEO Mike Lanigan said returning the race to Cleveland has been taxing, while at the same time he's holding out hope it can be done.
"Absolutely I'm getting frustrated," Lanigan said during Indy week. "But these are different times. We've done everything we can, and we're coming up empty on a lot of fronts."
While neither Lanigan nor officials with the IRL would officially put a dollar figure on making the race happen, privately the industry estimate is around $6 million.
Landing a title sponsor for the Cleveland race to help offset those expenses -- a $750,000 to $1.2 million outlay -- has been a struggle for years. Budweiser, Medic Drug, Marconi and US Bank have been Cleveland's title sponsor at various times over the 26 years of the race. But after Budweiser, which sponsored the race for the first 12 years, none of the others had much staying power.
"It is no small number," Lanigan said of the money required to make the race happen. Like title sponsors, Lanigan follows Champ Car, IMG, Penske Management and C.K. Newcomb and Associates in a long like of Promoters.
"But that doesn't mean we've given up," Lanigan said. "We are still pushing in a big way to figure out how we can do something sooner than later."
As time passes, more variables come into play. The number of IRL drivers who have raced in Cleveland during their careers dwindles. After Danica Patrick, Graham Rahal, Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves, it's tough to name another IRL regular who has raced here.
The last winner at Cleveland, Paul Tracy in 2007, is 41 years old and now just a part-time driver. Indeed, only two drivers who started that 2007 race in Cleveland -- Justin Wilson and Will Power -- are full-time IRL drivers now.
Lanigan said he didn't know if 2012 is the last opportunity for Cleveland.
"I have rarely given up on anything I've been involved with," Lanigan said. "We don't easily quit. Cleveland still offers the best of everything. But there are still a lot of pieces that have to be put together.
"There is no doubt the Indy Racing League wants to go to Cleveland. But it has got to be the right economics for everybody."
And it probably needs to happen by 2012. Cleveland.com