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Portland race could get the axe UPDATE #3 Portland's open-wheel racing future still is under discussion.

Champ Car cancelled two U.S. races this year and has indicated that the 2008 schedule will place more emphasis on races outside the United States. But the struggling racing series hasn't decided about Portland, according to Champ Car officials.

"Portland is not on, or off, the schedule yet," Champ Car president Steve Johnson said Monday.

Champ Car and Portland race organizers reportedly are hundreds of thousands of dollars apart in negotiations for a 2008 race at Portland International Raceway. The city's three-year contract with Champ Car came up for renewal in June.

Mike Nealy, the race's local promoter, said the open-wheel series wants Portland to pay its own way. Or come close.

Nealy estimates Champ Car spent close to $3 million in 2005, 2006 and 2007 on races at PIR.

If Portland remains on the 2008 schedule, its traditional mid-June date might change.

"By a week or two, or a month," Johnson said.

While sponsorship and attendance in Portland have improved in recent years -- the 2007 race acquired Mazda as its major sponsor -- the race-day crowd of 25,000 to 30,000 at PIR this past June disappointed Johnson. He put an event that started in 1984 on notice.

"Portland has been financially challenged," Johnson said, "but we don't go racing at places just for the money. That's not the driving decision, but it is part of the decision."

Champ Car's 2008 schedule will be released in mid-October, according to David Higdon, the series' vice president of communications.

"We're trying to not leak it out rumor by rumor, what city's in and what city's out," Higdon said Monday. "Nothing's been decided yet related to Portland. That decision hasn't been made yet."

The series has taken some hits after the cancellation of races in Denver, China and Phoenix.

Its biggest star, three-time defending champion Sebastien Bourdais, has announced he will race in Formula One next year.

What is now a 14-race 2007 schedule finishes with events in Australia on Oct. 21 and Mexico City on Nov. 11.

Kevin Kalkhoven, one of Champ Car's major investors, has been asked if Champ Car will survive past November and be around in 2008.

"Yes," he told media in Assen, Netherlands, where an announced crowd of 61,200 watched Justin Wilson win the series' most recent race.

Next year, Champ Car is expected to place a heavy emphasis on races outside of the United States. In the U.S., the series struggles for fan and media attention in the wake of the Champ Car/Indy Racing League split and the popularity of NASCAR.

Despite Champ Car's emphasis on Canada, Mexico, Australia and Europe, Johnson says Portland is a possibility for next year.

"Right now, on a tentative schedule, a Portland date is there," Johnson said. "But again, there are many dates there, and I can't race in all of them. I have to see how it all shakes out and do a final cut at that point. . . . There are a lot of cities there and not all of them are going to make it, obviously."

Johnson said the fan response in Holland re-invigorated Champ Car owners.

"It was a combination soccer crowd, NASCAR crowd, and WWE crowd," he said. "They had that much enthusiasm. When you see that, you really feel good about the product you are putting out. It makes you think that all of this is possible."

Will Portland have the opportunity to stage its 25th Champ Car race?

Right now, Champ Car can't say yes. But it won't say no. Portland Oregonian

06/12/07 A reader writes, This is the 6th year in the last 10 that my brother and I have attended the Champ Car race in Portland.  I have to say I think this one was the worst attended.  By my guess the Sunday crowd could have been no more than 20,000.  Now certainly the threatening weather had something to do with it, but there are other factors as well.

One is the condition of the facility. Most of the wood bleachers are old, rotted, and falling apart. Concessions are minimal and the restrooms are the quality one usually finds at a construction site.  PIR needs a new main grandstand to replace these aging bleachers with some top-notch amenities.  I live in Seattle and believe me when choosing where to spend my sporting dollar Safeco Field, Qwest Field, and Key Arena are much nicer places to attend an event.  We go to Portland because we are dedicated Champ Car fans, not because it is a good facility.  Lacking improvement, it seems like long odds to attract the average sports fan to PIR.

Another factor is the complete lack of promotion for the race. Again, living in Seattle with Portland less than a two and a half hour drive away, we see NOTHING in the Seattle area marketing the race weekend.  Between Seattle, Portland and Vancouver there must be a market of 8 million people. Seattle is by far the largest and closest, yet we see nothing on TV or in the papers.  The race gets about an inch of coverage in the newspapers here under the heading:  “In other racing news…”  The promoters need to find a way into this market, in fact the whole Northwest, if they want to improve attendance.  The Pacific Northwest is basically an open market for Champ Car to be in; there is no established racing legacy such as NASCAR in the area with the possible exception of the Seafair Unlimited Hydroplane races, which are getting very long in the tooth.  The region is also close to the Far East and Seattle has strong marketing connections with Japan, Korea, and China, all countries with strong interest in racing.  If you went to any Mariners game you would be surprised by the number of Japanese nationals that attend.

Lastly, of course, is Champ Car itself. When we arrived at our hotel near the track, we found a flyer about the race and a hanging sign in the lobby that said “Welcome Champ Car Fans”.  That was it.  If Champ Car wants to create a buzz around their events, they need to pick a host hotel and have a pre-race party on Saturday night open to the public.  Charge $5.00 admission, hire a local rock band, no-host bar, have the drivers stop by for a while, put a car or two on display in the lobby, etc.  Let people mingle and create a place where people want to be ALL WEEKEND.  Give us just a bit of the glamour of F-1, please!

In closing I hope the Portland race stays, but improvements are needed on all sides to return this race to its former glory, and I would hate to see the Northwest completely abandoned by Champ Car. Dave Bara, Seattle, WA

06/12/07 A reader writes, My wife and I just returned from a 2 week vacation, highlighted (for me anyway) by our first ever trip to the Portland GP.

I want to say that I hope Champ Car returns, we had a great time. The weather was miserable Saturday but even the NASCAR fans we took with us were impressed by the Champ Cars and especially the qualifying session is the rain. My friend now knows what I am talking about when I told him we'd be seeing some "real racing" this weekend. The guys (and gal) earned their money, the wet weather qualifying session was really an extraordinary thing to see. Though wet and tired, we ended up staying all afternoon. Accessibility to PIR is great. The hotel was only 5 minutes from PIR and provided shuttle bus service to and from the track, we didn't need to drive once the whole weekend. The Inner Circle Fan Club Paddock tour hosted by PCM was also a highlight. The only real complaint was that the Jumbotron was too far from our seats (section C4) and we could not follow the running order of the race. Better publicity, more reasonably priced weekend passes and a more informative PIR website would be helpful too. Even though my NASCAR friends are not converts just yet, they agree the whole weekend was an eye opening experience and they have a new found appreciation for Champ Car and PIR. Jim Corley

06/11/07 Champ Car officials will weigh a lot of factors before saying yes or no to a new deal.
On the day HBO aired the much-anticipated final episode of "The Sopranos," the president of Champ Car was asked if Sunday was the final episode of open-wheel racing in Portland.

Will the Mazda Champ Car Grand Prix of Portland return in 2008, making it one of the longest-running series in motor sports, or were the Champ Car transporters going to hit the Interstate 5 entry ramp Sunday night and never look back?

"I don't threaten anything, that's just not my style," Steve Johnson said as fans started to trickle into Portland International Raceway to watch three-time series champion Sebastien Bourdais overtake polesitter Justin Wilson and win his third consecutive race.

Johnson has made it abundantly clear he isn't thrilled with Portland's often-anemic attendance and the collective indifference from the corporate sector when Bourdais, Paul Tracy and Will Power fly into town.

Still, Johnson said the media was jumping to conclusions in suggesting that dismal crowd counts on Saturday and Sunday could kill the Portland race after 24 years.

Champ Car announced a three-day attendance of 70,211 for this year's event, which must have included a lot of no-shows. Media members were not provided a race-day attendance figure.

Last year, race-day attendance was announced at 44,065 and the three-day total was 77,065.

"I'm reading a lot of gloom and doom, but I'm not projecting gloom and doom," Johnson said of Portland's racing future.

He didn't blame fans for avoiding PIR on Saturday.

"Just to watch practice and qualifying? I wouldn't come," he said.

Johnson said if he had the choice of entertainment options he would have gone to the Rose Festival Parade, no question. Johnson said it was "probably not a good decision" to race opposite the parade this year.

But he doesn't blame local promoter Mike Nealy for what happened Saturday, when the grandstands were nearly empty.

"There's more to it than just, 'How many people do you have show up?' " Johnson said. "Because it rained yesterday and today, does that mean we aren't coming back? No, the rain has nothing to do with it. Things happen that are out of your control."

That doesn't mean Portland gets a free pass.

It was Johnson who said weeks ago that he would consider a three-day crowd of 100,000 a sign of improvement. That didn't happen.

The city's three-year contract with Champ Car is up, and talks will begin soon on a new deal. Portland isn't in a strong bargaining position, it would seem.

Johnson said the 2008 schedule comes out in September, "and sometime in August, we'll know."

He talked about possibly switching dates and having the next race in August or September, and noted that the idea of a street race downtown "has legs, but I don't know how long those legs are."   More at the Oregonian

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