The D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission announced last night that this year's Grand Prix auto race in Washington has been canceled, saying that the North Carolina-based promoter "has repeatedly failed to meet commitments" over the past several months.
Sports commission officials complained that with the June 27-29 event less than four months away, National Grand Prix Holdings LLC has proposed little to reduce the noise of cars racing about 50 yards from homes in the Kingman Park neighborhood of Northeast Washington. City tests during last year's inaugural race at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium measured the noise level at 100.4 to 105 decibels on adjacent streets, far exceeding the 60-decibel limit permitted in residential areas.
The Grand Prix, which last year is believed to have drawn 70,000 spectators over three days, is considered by Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) to be important to economic development in the city. But for Kingman Park residents, last summer's event was a loud intrusion that they don't want repeated.
Other issues, particularly internal squabbling at National Grand Prix Holdings, also contributed to the decision to pull the race, the sports commission said.
"The promoters canceled it," said John L. Richardson, the commission's chairman. "They never came up with a technological solution to the noise, and they had internal problems that led to the cancellation."
Scott Atherton, president and CEO of the American Le Mans Series, the event's sanctioning body, said in a statement, "For this year, the race has become a victim of operational problems on behalf of the event organizer."
The announcements by the commission and American Le Mans raised concerns about a 10-year contract to hold the race in the District and $5.1 million the commission was authorized to spend on construction related to the Grand Prix. Under the agreement between the sports commission and Grand Prix Holdings, the promoter has the duration of the contract to repay its half of that cost in what amounts to an interest-free loan with no guarantor.
Last night, neither Richardson nor commission President Robert D. Goldwater -- both of whom have refused to make the Grand Prix contract public -- would discuss the money or how the quasi-independent city agency would recoup the funds should the rest of the races be canceled. Goldwater said that he is hopeful that future Grand Prix auto competitions will be held in the nation's capital, but he added, "I'm not sure we can with this group [Grand Prix Holdings]."
Christopher J. Lencheski, co-founder and board chairman of Grand Prix Holdings, did not return three calls yesterday seeking comment.
Several D.C. Council members who have criticized the race and the sports commission said they were pleased that this year's Grand Prix will not take place. They said they were troubled, however, that the commission and the promoter were not talking more openly about the $5.1 million and the issues that led to the cancellation.
"As for the $5 million-plus spent by the sports commission, hopefully it protected itself for something like this," said D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), chairman of the Committee on Finance and Revenue. "If not, we will find out. Clearly, John Richardson and Bobby Goldwater have some explaining to do."
Said council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), who represents the Kingman Park neighborhood adjacent to the track: "This is absolutely a victory for the community because promises were made about the noise and they were not kept. And if the promoters and the sports commission can't solve the noise problem or offer the best noise abatement there is, canceling the race is the right decision."
Residents of Kingman Park, infuriated by three days of overwhelming noise during last year's event, have presented the sports commission with a petition signed by about 90 residents who oppose having the Grand Prix in their neighborhood. The residents have hired a public relations specialist and have been receiving help from Georgetown University Law Center in drawing up a lawsuit to block the race.
Heidi Kotzian, the spokeswoman for the residents, said they planned to file the suit because the 10-year contract has not been canceled.
"The community is overwhelmingly pleased with the decision," said Frazer Walton Jr., president of the Kingman Park Civic Association. "The sports commission and the Williams administration were turning a deaf ear to our concerns and offered not real viable alternatives." Referring to the noise and fumes from the race cars, he added, "We also felt that not only was the community being exploited, but the health of the community was being put at risk."
Tony Bullock, spokesman for Williams, said that he had not been able to get in touch with the mayor to discuss the announcement. "Obviously, we will do whatever we can to safeguard any District funds that are involved," he said.
Sources involved in the planning of the race said the commission and Grand Prix Holdings had argued about who was responsible for paying for sound abatement measures, which could be very expensive.
The sources also said that members of the sports commission recently talked with race organizers other than Lencheski, triggering an internal battle between him and the board of Grand Prix Holdings. Lencheski has since asked the board to buy him out, the sources said.