Executive chairman and promoter of the Grand Prix of America offers an update on plans for the June 2014 F1 race along the New Jersey shoreline.
Since the announcement that the race was being postponed last year, things have been relatively quiet…
We had to prove that we were going to have a race. We were hopeful for this June, but a lot of masters have to be served in Formula 1 and none of them can be ill-served. By late fall of last year, we knew that we were not in a position [to hold the race in 2013]. We had an agreement in place with Bernie Ecclestone, but it wasn't a long-term agreement, it was the one that allowed us to get started. We had to put ourselves in the position where we got a long-term agreement. We were missing some permits related to the river, so we just had to back off.
We put our nose to the grindstone and worked over the winter. In my career, which has been in the media industry, I have never had somebody support something I was trying to get done better than Bernie Ecclestone. He is an extraordinarily patient, demanding, wonderful friend and [F1 race director] Charlie Whiting is the same way.
Early on, we promised we would give them a course that was as good as Spa, as good as the Nurburgring, as good as Le Mans in an urban setting. If the best team, best driver, best engineers don't think they have got the best chance, you haven't given them the perfect course.
We had that wonderful experience with Seb [Vettel] and David Coulthard when they came over and in street Infinitis (RIGHT) they showed we had a pretty good course. We also said that we think, and will always believe, that it is a privilege to be here [New Jersey], we are not taking any municipal monies and that has been a challenge. It's something we believe in, but it made it difficult.
Then you have this other responsibility – there are 90,000 people here [in Montreal], some of them are sponsors and some of them are fans, and they all want the perfect event and to be entertained. They want safe access, they want to watch a good race and get out of there in a reasonable amount of time. We have put all of that together and it has been a lot of partnerships.
Hermann Tilke [circuit designer] has been extraordinary, Charlie Whiting has been extraordinary and nobody has been a better friend to this project than Bernie.
Bernie has made it clear that this was purely a financial problem that stopped the race happening this year, is that correct?
It was. We didn't have the financing in place to satisfy his demands for a long-term race. They weren't looking for a one-off experience. If they are going to come to the New York/New Jersey area, it's going to be for a very long time and that required a permanent capital structure on our part that did that. We weren't ready.
And you have been able to bring in that money now?
We were thrilled [with financial progress]. If we went there now, we could see a couple of hundred people working very hard. We start road work next week, weather permitting, we're going to start to knock the crown off some of the roadway and we will be paving later in the summer. There is nothing I have any hesitancy about.
We are thrilled that [Long Beach Grand Prix founder] Chris Pook is part of this project. Chris is a dear, dear friend of Bernie's and he has forgotten more about road racing on streets than anybody knows. It's not that Tilke needs help – it's a partnership.
We have announced that Marty Hunt, who was director of race operations at Indy when they brought F1 there and was director of race operations at Austin, is coming on board as our director of race operations.
That extra year has been put to good use, then? There have been a lot of changes of personnel in the organization…
There have been. My bosses are Bernie Ecclestone and Charlie Whiting – they are the only two people we have to satisfy and they are not easy taskmasters. We had to get the right people in place. I think we got ahead of ourselves in marketing and event planning when we should have been spending more of our energy in the course and the construction. Some people had joined us early on in the marketing side and we didn't need them if we were going to be racing in '14 rather than '13, so the more integral hires recently have been Marty Hunt and Chris Pook.
Do you have a set date for next year?
He [Ecclestone] 's given us a month – June. We know we will be sometime in June next year following Canada.
Is the course is the same as the original plan?
Yes, no change at all. There have been some changes in the pit area. About half of it in the original design was going to be temporary, more analogous to Canada. But we decided that putting up and taking down the pits and paddock area doesn't work over the long term. Now the entire pit and paddock structure is permanent. It really should give us a leg up in terms of quality of the hospitality.
We have done some modest changes around the ferry terminal that will make egress and ingress somewhat easier but the course is exactly the same as three years ago.
Do you have the full support of the local authorities?
They are thrilled. Primarily, we are paying them! That helps. There is nobody that lives in the circumference of the course. Because of the way the Palisades work, we race along the river and then across the top of the cliffs, so there is no disruption – unlike Singapore or St. Pete or Long Beach, there is nobody disrupted in the middle of the course, so that's easier on the municipal authorities. So 100,000 people will come and bring a couple of hundred million dollars of taxable revenue to these communities. And then we are paying them regardless for the privilege.
When this race was announced, there was a lot of talk about how it would fit in with the United States Grand Prix in Austin. Is there an advantage to your first race following on a year after, given the growth of F1 in the U.S., especially with NBC taking over the coverage?
What Austin did, to their credit, is they put on a heck of a race last year and they will put on a heck of a race this year. They excited the U.S. audience about F1, which we are grateful for. I see a tremendous partnership between Canada, Austin and our race, because a fan in the North American market can see three really great F1 races a year, much like someone in Europe can with just a little bit of travel. We couldn't be more pleased with the friendship out of [COTA president] Steve Sexton and [COTA co-founder] Bobby Epstein. They have been great with us.
Last year, there were some stories about Bernie Ecclestone potentially buying out the promotion of the race. Is there any possibility of that happening?
All I can tell you is that it didn't happen and it's not happening. We owed them a race and whatever anyone said was warranted, because we weren't ready. They wanted a race, we weren't in a position to give them a race on the terms that we needed and, heck, I don't blame anybody but myself for not getting it ready on time.
But it's a tough financial environment still in the world. We put this demand on it of no municipal money. We thought it was our opportunity to bring something spectacular and special but it's not easy.
What is your motivation for putting on this race?
The motivation is simple: to look out one day soon, and see 100,000 people watch Formula 1 – which has had the privilege of being in every major capital in the world except New York – in my hometown. Bernie is a friend, but he's not an easy friend because he represents the entirety of the sport. He wanted it, I wanted it and we wanted to bring F1 to New York. That's my motivation. I don't have ego with this thing at all. It has been hard. I have had a nice career but I wouldn't have done this if I hadn't been a racer myself.
What other events will be going on during the race weekend? Will there be support categories?
Sure, there will be support races and a lot of entertainment on both sides of the river.
What support categories are you looking at?
We can't comment on that. There are five people that have asked to be support races. I don't get to run them.