SEBRING - ChampCar series co-owner Paul Gentilozzi said the second Grand Prix of St. Petersburg would have run as scheduled through downtown streets in May had former general manager Tom Begley not demanded a cash payoff in exchange for his consent to stage the open-wheel event.
Begley claims in a lawsuit that promoter Dover Motorsports owes him more than $700,000 for expenses incurred setting up the inaugural running in February 2003. Because Begley had a contractual right in Dover's contract with the city to approve any reassignment of the Grand Prix to a new sanctioning body, ChampCar could not take over the race from the bankrupt Championship Auto Racing Teams and race without his blessing.
The blessing, Gentilozzi said, had a price tag.
"He told us if we gave him money, he'd go away," Gentilozzi said.
Gentilozzi made a personal call to Begley in February, shortly after ChampCar won CART's assets in bankruptcy court. He did so when it became apparent that Begley was going to exercise his right of assignment. Gentilozzi did not specify how much Begley requested.
"I've raced every St. Pete Grand Prix there has been between Trans Am and everything else, and I have huge affection for the market and the spirit of the fans," Gentilozzi said. "When Trans Am was the feature, we got good crowds and I just had to shake my head at Begley. Everyone was scurrying around and I thought, "I've known Tom a long time, and I know he loves motor racing.' I thought, "I'm going to call Tom and try to settle this so we can have a race.'
"I was never so disappointed. It was about him. It was never about having a race."
The city voted this month to void its contract with Dover, effectively ending Begley's control over the market and making the city market a free agent. But that came less than two weeks after ChampCar announced it had to cancel the race.
Begley's attorney, Jonathan Alpert, said Gentilozzi mischaracterized the conversation.
"It was an effort to work things out," he said. "It was totally unfruitful because of a lot of issues they needed to address."
Begley did not return a call from the Times.
Signs remain that ChampCar would like to return to the city. It hired most recent Grand Prix GM Tim Ramsberger last month as vice president of promoter operations and recently acquired the material assets of the Grand Prix, including safety barriers and other materials, Gentilozzi said. Though ChampCar has two "to be announced" dates on its 16-race schedule in September and November, Gentilozzi said it won't return to St. Petersburg until 2005 at the earliest, preferably in March.
"Before we can even look at that we have to get a few races under our belt," he said. "We have to make a business case. We couldn't have a better city to work with: (Mayor Rick Baker) is great, enthusiastic, willing to move mountains, and they want us there, but we have to fix the business side of the equation before we get too crazy. We have to get flat-out going and then have a pragmatic analysis. We need to be in Florida and we need to be there before spring break."
Begley has contended he did not want ChampCar to stage a poor race that could damage the viability of the market. But Gentilozzi said the best way to maintain viability, and for Begley to recoup money, was to continue the race.
"You can't keep turning the fans on and off, and I worry about that," Gentilozzi said. "St. Pete has had three or four different races (in different series) over a period of time. You get fans built up and then you go away. Fans wonder if they want to get attached. That was what we were trying to prevent. That's why I was willing to reach out to Tom. A couple of my partners met with him and came back and said there's no negotiating with him. He was not going to be rational. Now he's Dover's problem."
Dover replaced Begley as GM in June and appointed him as head of the Grand Prix Foundation charity, a "figurehead position," according to Begley. He claims Dover and former CART CEO Chris Pook were unscrupulous in attaining the race rights from him and misled him about potential financial gains.
Alpert said the suit against Dover and the unwillingness to assign the race to ChampCar were separate issues.