The infamous Festival Curves at Portland International Raceway have been paved over, clearing the way for fewer fender-benders during the June 19 Champ Car race. But even though the gravel trap in the chicane is gone, a few figurative speed bumps remain as Portland readies for its 22nd open-wheel race after a tempestuous off-season during which the city flirted with the rival Indy Racing League, then came back hat in hand to Champ Car to sign a three-year contract. The addition of marketing-savvy G.I. Joe's as presenting sponsor is a huge plus for Portland, but local promoter Mike Nealy has not announced a title sponsor. The race had no title sponsor in 2004, and afterward there was a tug of war between Champ Car faithful and those who wanted to drop Champ Car and go with Tony George's IRL. But the IRL — which added a street race in St. Petersburg, Fla., and road course races at Infineon (Calif.) and Watkins Glen (N.Y.) this year — couldn't fit Portland into its 2005 schedule. After some hurt feelings, Champ Car came back. When former city commissioner Jim Francesconi announced a three-year revenue-sharing deal last August, he said he felt better about the race's future, "because the business community has said they're going to come up with a minimum of $500,000 worth of sponsorship."
If true, that would be a good start. "We anticipate having a totally different approach than last year," Nealy said. "We're still working at it. That's all I can tell you." Champ Car, which at one time was prepared to drop Portland from the 2005 schedule, will co-promote the race and assume a nearly $2 million financial risk. Champ Car's vastly improved TV package with CBS, NBC and the Speed Channel means greater visibility for the Portland race, which will be televised live on CBS.
The city and Champ Car have an out clause if the event loses money for the fourth consecutive year, but in an interview last week, Champ Car president Dick Eidswick said increased support from the Portland business community and a more aggressive marketing approach lead him to think the once-thriving event can be successful again. Eidswick said he is planning a trip to Portland to meet with representatives of Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski. He said he also would like some sit down time with Portland Mayor Tom Potter to discuss the economic impact open-wheel racing has made in the Portland area since the race began in 1984 — and the importance of nurturing a relationship that almost turned sour when the IRL tried to move in. Bottom line, Eidswick said, there are no guarantees for Portland. If events at Vancouver, B.C.; Laguna Seca Raceway in California; Mid-Ohio Sports-Car Course, and Wisconsin's Road America can be discontinued, as they have been this year, so can Portland. If base revenue for the 2005 Portland race is less than $1.5 million, both Champ Car and the city have the opportunity to cancel the remaining two races on the contract during a 90-day period after the race. Both sides downplayed the significance of the out clause when the new contract was announced. The future of Champ Car racing at PIR could depend on how the race comes off in June. Will attendance increase? Will the event make money? Eidswick knows the history of the event and knows all about its glory days in the 1990s. "We're working very hard to make sure (Portland) gets back to that," Eidswick said. "We made a commitment to the city.
"We're going to bring the show and try to put on the best race we can," Eidswick said. "If the local business people don't support it, it means the community doesn't really want a race. But as far as we're concerned, we're in it this year and we're going full blast to put on a great event. Hopefully, we'll get the right combination with the city leaders and the business leaders and get the race to where it should be."