More bumps in road for NJ F1 race

Outside the sleek, modern Port Imperial ferry terminal along the Hudson River in Weehawken, Alisa Gurnari looked across the street at the parking deck that would double as a paddock area for Formula 1 race teams if dreams of the waterfront Grand Prix of America ever come true.

Gurnari, a television make-up artist who lives in Edgewater, said she could envision the three-story garage adorned with the logos of Ferrari, Lotus and other race teams, their pit crews hustling to change tires and refuel low-slung, high-powered racing machines, with the Manhattan skyline rising above it all.

"I’m for it as an owner here in Edgewater," said Gurnari, referring to her condominium a few miles up river. "It’ll bring a lot of revenue, excitement. Make the place more popular."

There’s no shortage of enthusiasm for an F1 race along the Hudson County waterfront, an event Gov. Chris Christie said would generate $100 million for the region’s economy when he announced in October 2011 the annual event would debut this summer.

But a lack of funding forced the organizer, former YES Network chief Leo Hindery, to announce last October that the race would be postponed until June 2014.

Since then, even more potholes have opened up on F1’s uncertain road to New Jersey.

A spokesman for Hindery’s group confirmed this week that its chief marketing officer, Trip Wheeler, and its chief financial officer, Michael Cummings, have left the organization. The two departures follow news last August that Tom Cotter, president of Grand Prix of America, had also left.

"While we have not yet named replacements, duties have been absorbed by our executive team and we look forward to announcing additional staff as we approach next year’s race," Hindery’s organization stated.

Just before the October postponement, F1 Chairman Bernie Ecclestone said publicly that Hindery had failed to meet financial terms of a 10-year licensing agreement, and that the contract for the Hudson County race had been torn up. Annual F1 licensing fees in the 20 or so countries that host races are about $27 million, with capital and operating costs adding millions more.

In recent weeks, Ecclestone again cast doubt on the future of a grand prix race in New Jersey by publicly raising the possibility of an F1 race in Long Beach, Calif. Unlike New Jersey, which has never hosted F1 racing, Long Beach is a proven grand prix venue that hosted F1 from 1976 to 1983, and has continued to be a regular home of IndyCar racing, America’s open-wheel circuit.

Last November, an F1 event was held in Austin, Texas, the first time in six years such a race had been held in the U.S.

Hindery’s organization insisted this week that talk of reviving F1 racing in Long Beach would have no bearing on its ability to win backers in New Jersey.

"Race progress, including permitting and course construction, continues to move forward and we are on pace for a world-class race in 2014," a statement by the organization read.

But Christian Sylt, an Eccesltone confidante and F1 authority who runs the website, said he doubts the New Jersey race will take place 2014, if ever.

"I would be absolutely astonished if this happens. I have got no evidence that the organizers have obtained funding to host the race and, crucially, there is no evidence whatsoever that they have got a contract with (Eccesltone)," Sylt wrote in an email to The Star-Ledger this week.

Formula One race car drivers take preview laps at Grand Prix of America at Port Imperial.

Reigning F1 World Champion Sebastian Vettel and two-time Monaco Gran Prix winner and now BBC commentator David Coulthard drove the proposed Grand Prix of America course that spans the Weehawken and West New York waterfront with a Manhattan skyline as a background. The grand prix is scheduled to begin next year, after the F1 race in Montreal, Canada. Vettel and Coulthard drove matching 348-horsepower Infiniti IPL G Coupes with members of the media and at times reached 90-plus mph with a police escort.

Sylt said Hindery stood little chance of making an F1 race work without public subsidies, a common means of offsetting escalating franchise fees and other costs of running the races. The race in Austin, for example, has an agreement with the state of Texas for an annual reimbursement of up to $25 million, depending on the taxes the race generates.

"It is almost unheard of for a street race to go ahead without state funding," Sylt said. "And the cancellation of the New Jersey Grand Prix simply served to reinforce this."

When Christie joined Hindery in 2011 to announce the New Jersey grand prix, he made clear taxpayers would not contribute a dime. Even after the finance-related postponement, Christie stood by his no-subsidies pledge Tuesday.

"I’ve been told by Leo Hindery, they don’t need them, so, that’s the end of the discussion," Christie said during an event in Newark Tuesday. "The guy in charge of the formula race, he’s told me he doesn’t need them. I told him we’re not giving them. So there’s really not a discussion."

Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner circumspect when asked Tuesday how confident he was F1 drivers would be starting their engines in his town next year.

"I have to take them at their word that the race is going forward," Turner said. But, he added, "There have been so many squabbles in the past we can’t rule out another one."

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