Nealy wasn't breaking out champagne in the wake of Sunday's race — which attracted an estimated crowd of 25,000 to 30,000 — but he felt a lot better than he did 12 months ago when low sponsorship sales, sagging attendance and the threat of the IRL seemed to indicate a seismic shift in Portland's open-wheel future.
For months, Champ Car wasn't sure it wanted to be back in Portland. But Champ Car signed a new three-year contract with the city in August 2004, with the proviso that Nealy deliver more sponsorships and more fans. Above all, Champ Car needed some sign that Portland wanted this event to continue. After Brazilian Cristiano da Matta won Sunday's race, series co-owners Kevin Kalkhoven, Gerry Forsythe and Paul Gentilozzi seemed satisfied.
"I think everybody left here very much on a high yesterday," Nealy said. "I think it was a great weekend for Portland. I've had calls from people outside of Oregon who watched the race on CBS and raved about how terrific it looked. . . . I just think everybody is excited, and encouraged."
Kalkhoven, who also is part-owner in da Matta's PKV Racing team, said Portland "is showing all signs of a rebound. I've looked at the numbers (sponsorships, suite sales, tickets) and everything is up 18 percent, or 20 percent, or 30 percent."
But the reality is the Portland race still is not making money for the city and Champ Car. Nealy said he doesn't have the final totals yet from 2005, but he could not say with assurance the event will turn a profit. According to the wording of the city's contract with Champ Car, if the revenue base for 2005 is less than $1.5 million, "Champ Car or the city will have the option to cancel the remaining races during the 90-day period following the race."
No one from Champ Car even hinted that the series would exercise its "out" clause. Still, there is work to do if Portland wants to assure its appearance on Champ Car schedules in 2006, 2007 and beyond.
Gentilozzi concedes an emotional attachment to Portland. "But somewhere in here we have to make a business decision," he said. "If there's any potential to grow the market and make this race a success, then we want to be here. And it's not just about promotion. It's about community involvement."
Nealy said that in the next 30 to 45 days, Champ Car officials want to meet with Portland Mayor Tom Potter or the new Parks Commissioner (when that person is appointed) to see if the city is as committed to investing money and support as the major businesses that contributed to this year's event.
"There was a buzz about the race this year that started weeks ago with the G.I. Joe's inserts, the Red Bull displays at over 200 retail locations and Chevron's involvement starting on the first of May," Nealy said. "(The business response) was just incredible, I thought."