Newman and Champ Car eye Brooklyn racetrack UPDATE It might very well take the performance of Hollywood legend Paul Newman’s career to bring auto racing back to Brooklyn. Newman, partnered with North American Motorsport Events, is hoping to transform a few miles of Floyd Bennett Field into a course for an annual auto racing event.
But if the reaction after a presentation last week is any indication, star power might not be enough to see the plan through.
At Community Board 18’s monthly meeting, Geoffrey Whaling, the chief executive officer of North American Motorsport Events, presented an amended version of the controversial $15 million proposal.
The plan—which was rejected back in June by Gateway National Recreation Area—seeks to bring motorsports to the former airport, in the form of an annual race, called the New York Memorial Grand Prix, a feature race of the Champ Car World Series.
Whaling stressed that none of the construction on the site would be permanent, and the National Parks Service could stand to gain $1 million annually for leasing the space.
He said the New York Memorial Grand Prix would be an annual community festival culminating with a three-day racing event.
“We are not proposing to build anything [permanent] at Floyd Bennett Field,” Whaling stressed.
The event is planned for September, with the inaugural event on Sept. 19-21, 2008 with a “Festival of Speed,” a series of community fundraising events, planned a week prior to the race weekend.
Whaling said the event could bring an annual economic impact of some $40-$60 million to Brooklyn and New York City.
The race course would be carved out of a 3.49-mile stretch of former runways at the site.
All net proceeds from the event would go to charity or a group of charities to be determined by the community, Whaling said.
The plan also calls for the conversion of the former Navy barracks on the site into Newman’s Hole in the Wall Camp for Children, an organization for children with cancer or other serious illnesses.
No parking is planned on the site, he added. All visitors would be shuttled into the site via a fleet of free buses.
“It will be a premier race around the world,” Whaling said. “We think it’s a win-win for Brooklyn,” he said.
Whaling said the hope is that by presenting the proposal to the community board, and other civic groups, a groundswell of support will find its way to local elected officials.
“We would like you to convey this to your leadership,” he said.
Whaling, who told this paper weeks ago that changes to the plan could be forthcoming, said North American Motorsport Events is now a not-for profit entity. Formerly, it was for-profit.
And while a description of the plan states that “65,000 participants would be shuttled to the site,” Whaling cut that number down to 35,000 people.
But changes to the plan have done little to compel some elected officials and the National Parks Service to support it.
Pete McCarthy, the assistant superintendent of the Jamaica Bay Unit of Gateway National Park, said that to the best of his knowledge, “the park’s stance will not change on this.”
“Mr. Sullivan’s original statement stands,” McCarthy said, referring to Barry Sullivan, the general superintendent of Gateway National Recreation Area. In a decision handed down in June, Sullivan said the race is not compatible with the purposes for which Gateway was established.
Eric Koch, a spokesperson for Rep. Anthony Weiner, a critic of the project from its inception, said, “The congressman welcomes the input of the community board, but the community has spoken loudly and clearly. This plan is dead.”
At the board meeting last week, City Councilmember Lew Fidler stood in the doorway of the Kings Plaza community room listening to the end of Whaling’s presentation, with an expression on his face closely approximating disgust.
“I have grave concerns about this proposal,” Fidler said.
“They can coat it with any number of lumps of sugar they want,” he continued. “It is still environmentally unsound and bad for the community that surrounds it.”
He said the shuttle bus plan “is on its face, ridiculous.”
Any tweaking of the plan—which he said was never presented to him personally—seems disingenuous, Fidler said. “This is still an endeavor in which million of dollars will be generated. Profit will be made—you can’t get around that.”
“What they have done is play a subtle word game with what to me, sounds like the same proposal,” Fidler said.
“The notion is distasteful and rubs me the wrong way,” he added.
Even State Senator Carl Kruger, a plan backer, seemed to put his enthusiasm for the plan in the back seat.
“I don’t know how you move 35,000 people with shuttle buses and not create a problem,” Kruger added.
Last year, Kruger was quoted as saying the plan is “an exciting, unique opportunity to take what was the forgotten Floyd Bennett Field, energize it and bring a Grand Prix to Brooklyn. It will attract a very high-end, sophisticated clientele that will mean dollars coming into Brooklyn,” according to a report.
“It’s all too premature now to say this is great or this is terrible,” he said after the board meeting, noting he always had a concern about traffic and congestion the plan could generate.
Still he said, the event “should not be dismissed out of hand. It is a nice spectator sport, a family kind of thing,” he said.
“Any time we deviate from what a national park is—picnic tables, grass, ducks and nature trails—then we are losing the conceptual feel of a national park,” the state lawmaker said. “But the grass doesn’t support the bills.”
The problem is that funding streams for the park are not sufficient, forcing consideration of uses that might initially seem anathema, Kruger said.
“Appropriateness has to be tempered with realities. If Congress gave the support it should, then none of these things would be appropriate,” he said.
Paul Curiale, the president of the Mill Basin Civic Association, said Whaling had yet to approach his group about making a presentation.
“Mill Basin was relieved when we thought it was a dead issue. We’re concerned,” he told Whaling.
Whaling said he continues to meet with officials at the Department of Interior, which has oversight over national parks, asking them to appeal the previous decision.
He said Newman, 82, has been an avid racing enthusiast most of his life. “It’s the only place he can get away from it all,” he said. Courier-Life03/31/07 Hollywood legend Paul Newman has a dream, and Geoffrey Whaling is determined to make it come true. Rebuffed last June, Whaling, the chief executive officer of North American Motorsport Events, remains undaunted in his quest to bring motorsports to Brooklyn. Whaling and Newman, his business partner, were told by Gateway National Recreation Area that their plan to bring auto racing to Floyd Bennett Field was incompatible with the mission of a national park. Since then, Whaling told this newspaper, he has been trying to appeal the decision, and has been meeting with officials at the U.S. Department of the Interior, as well as looking at other possible sites.
“We are looking at other space that could be available for this,” he said. “I have had many people approach me and suggest other options,” he said.
Whaling said he has been traversing much of the borough, eyeing properties. “He entrusts me to do so,” he said, referring to Newman.
He refused to be specific about where in Brooklyn the event could be accommodated, but would say that he looked at a privately held property in northern Brooklyn, as well as land west of Floyd Bennett Field, which is part of Gateway. Still, he said, “Floyd Bennett Field remains our first choice.”
None of the other sites “have the bones like Floyd Bennett—it has miles of unused runways,” he noted. More at Baynewsbrooklyn.com