The cancellation of Washington's 2003 Grand Prix auto race resulted from poor planning by the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission that alienated residents near the track and left the critical responsibility of noise abatement with an out-of-town promoter who had misled the District before, several D.C. Council members and activists said yesterday.
The demise of this year's event also is a setback for Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), who had hailed last summer's inaugural race on the grounds of Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium as "enormously successful" and said that the Grand Prix was "vitally, critically imperative" to show that the nation's capital can host world-class events. The mayor said at the time that more investment would be needed to reduce the din from dozens of race cars competing on a track within 150 feet of homes.
But that money never materialized, while residents in the Kingman Park section of Northeast Washington adjacent to RFK increased the legal and public relations pressure to have the 10-year race contract rescinded. Over the weekend, the sports commission's executive director, Robert D. Goldwater, lamented the loss of the race and criticized the North Carolina-based promoter, National Grand Prix Holdings LLC, for failing to remedy the noise problem. Goldwater said the race generated about $12 million in direct spending in the District in 2002.
Before last summer's competition, however, Grand Prix Holdings misled District regulators when it told officials that a Canadian expert would build a high-tech sound wall along a 700-foot section of the 1.7-mile track. It is unclear who built the sound-dampening fence that measured only 584 feet and was missing numerous tiles, inspectors said.
"It was technically silly . . . and by again putting the matter of noise abatement in the hands of people who failed, the sports commission is undermining its own credibility and its commitment to the neighbors," said Dorn McGrath Jr., professor of urban and regional planning at George Washington University. During July's Grand Prix, McGrath measured the race-car noise in Kingman Park and, like District regulators, determined that it far exceeded what is allowed in residential areas.
D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4) yesterday assailed the commission, a quasi-independent arm of the D.C. government whose board is appointed by the mayor, for not taking a greater role in noise abatement. He recalled that the sports commission had been less than open in discussing the planning and financing of the Grand Prix.
"Maybe these guys are just too independent and that clouds their judgment about how responsive they should be to the residents and the D.C. Council," Fenty said. "Because of this failure to openly consult, the noise issue has exploded in their faces."
Said council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2): "The noise issue has come home to roost. Clearly, relying on Grand Prix Holdings after their track record last year was a risky proposition that has now backfired."
Goldwater said yesterday that the sports commission expected Grand Prix Holdings to handle the noise predicament because it is contractually required to do so.
"There is no question at all that it was the promoter's responsibility . . . but we had no evidence whatsoever that a meaningful noise plan was being undertaken," Goldwater said.
Goldwater quoted the Grand Prix contract: "NGPH acknowledges the necessity for (a) considering the needs and addressing the concerns of residential neighborhoods in the vicinity of the commission property."
Goldwater said that Grand Prix Holdings canceled this year's race but not the entire 10-year agreement. He noted, however, that the promoter had not mentioned resuming the race in 2004, and a high-ranking Williams administration source said it is unlikely that any future Grand Prix races would be held with the current promoter.
A source with the American Le Mans Series, the sanctioning body of the Washington Grand Prix, said the organization believes that Grand Prix Holdings violated its contract by not dealing with the noise matter properly.
Christopher J. Lencheski, co-founder and board chairman of Grand Prix Holdings, did not return four calls yesterday seeking a comment.
Williams said in an interview that if the noise from the race cannot be brought down to an acceptable level, then the event should not be held in the future. "Neighborhood impact is important, and there is a point beyond which you should not go," he said.
Williams said it was too early to tell whether the District would be able to recoup about half of the $5.1 million the sports commission was authorized to put up for construction related to the race. Under the race contract, the promoter has the duration of the 10-year agreement to repay about 50 percent of the $5.1 million in what amounts to an interest-free loan with no guarantor.
Goldwater said that the sports commission has received some of that money -- "in the low six figures" -- but the remainder still is in question. He said the sports commission is examining its legal options.
Council member Harold Brazil (D-At Large), chairman of the Committee on Economic Development and a past supporter of the Grand Prix and sports commission, declined to comment on the cancellation.
John Capozzi, an activist who opposes the Grand Prix, said, "The sports commission should have had an exit strategy in place to protect the money they put up and any future expenditures or losses they anticipated."
Staff writer Tarik El-Bashir contributed to this report.