By Earl Ma
with photos by the author

  Skidding off the Runway
Analyzing how the Hawaiian Super Prix went awry

Part 4 of 6

 

Lost at sea

On October 10, a labor dispute erupted between Hawaii's stevedores and the shipping companies which supply 90% of all goods and materials to the Islands, with work stoppages and slowdowns resulting in consumers raiding stores en masse and hoarding toilet paper and rice. Businesses relying on smooth operations at the docks for their inventories have also suffered, and the situation had also adversely affected HSP in terms of getting the track and facilities at Kalaeloa ready in time for race weekend.

While the track had already been repaved and some facilities constructed, such as the announcer's booth, and while workers could proceed with the assembly and placement of concrete barriers and tire walls, two main construction goals remained: the grandstands and the safety fencing, and the labor dispute held these up at the most inopportune time possible.

16 shipping containers full of aluminum for the bleachers left the west coast the last week of September and arrived in Hawaii one week later. But it took HSP another two weeks to actually take full delivery of all these containers from dockside. Meanwhile, the steel needed at the onset of the assembly process, which originated from a plant in Alabama, sat aboard another freighter for some two weeks as well and only began off-loading the day before the race's cancellation. Debris fencing still sits aboard a ship somewhere in the Pacific, while spectator fencing never left the mainland.

The two sides in the labor dispute announced a settlement in the early morning hours of October 25, just days after dockworkers across the state unanimously voted in favor of a strike. If the work slowdown had indeed escalated into a strike, and if the line of ships waiting indefinitely in the harbors kept growing, it could have dealt the Super Prix a lethal blow by simply not getting bleachers and fencing in (and weight alone would have made air freight cost-prohibitive).

Assuming a best-case scenario of the race proceeding as scheduled and the labor dispute being resolved, with workers constructing bleachers and erecting fencing in three full shifts around the clock, they would still have realistically managed to finish only an estimated 20,000 seats of the 50,000 tickets they wanted to sell. In this case, the poor ticket sales would actually have been a blessing in disguise. But why, knowing that shipping everything by sea takes extra lead time versus races on the mainland US, and that there had already been a brief work stoppage among the dockworkers this July, did HSP not order parts sooner so they could receive them sooner - well before the labor dispute even materialized?

Aside from the sponsorship and PPV issues, the motorsports media showed grave concern from the outset because Rutherford had not established a discernable track record on the commercial side of racing (beyond his fleeting role with ARS) and because of his involvement in the original 1993 Super Gran Prix proposal. Robin Miller summed up the thoughts of many journalists in his October 6 Speednet column: "as I predicted, anything Dick Rutherford was in charge of had no chance."

In a March interview with the Advertiser, Rutherford addressed the oft-asked question about the event's financial profitability, given skepticism behind the PPV deal. "Somebody asked me, ‘how much money do you think you can make?' Well, what business is that of anybody's if it's our money? Our group is taking the gamble, and we realize it's a $30 million gamble. But if we're stupid and lose our money, then that's our fault."

The following month, Rutherford sounded decidedly less confident, at a platform where he could least afford it. With Russ Francis, the Super Prix Team, and hordes of racing journalists in attendance, HSP set up shop during Long Beach to drum up support for the race. Kirby recalls, "when he was speaking, someone asked him about the income from the PPV deal, and he just stood there stammering and couldn't respond; one of his aides had to finally try and answer for him...he was unable to answer that question at all, and that only heightened everybody's doubts. When that was the purpose of his press conference at Long Beach - that was supposed to shore up the event - the press walked away laughing."

"The questioning was very skeptical," Koenig remembers. "It seemed to me it had trouble recovering from (the press conference). I came away with a lot of questions as to how this thing was going to work. I personally had a lot of questions - not only PPV."

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The situation came to a head when the HSP board voted for an internal restructuring which saw Rutherford relieved of his duties as CEO, though he would retain the title of Co-Founder and held the responsibility for overseeing the long-term development of the Super Prix. In an August 21 press release, Grayson said, "with the November race date quickly approaching, it became increasingly difficult for Richard to run the day-to-day operation as well as to attempt to secure the types of sponsors required for an event with a $10 million prize. This restructuring will help ensure the long-term health of the race."

In a related personnel move, Richard (Rich) Rutherford, Jr., a former minor league racer who his father had employed as HSP's Vice President and Assistant General Manager, resigned and left the organization, as did Director of Merchandising Jina Bouchakian, Rich's girlfriend. Heard, who had already been far more visible at HSP's summer promotional events than Rutherford, earned a promotion to CEO. In a show of support, his son Jason, with one semester of college remaining in Vancouver, quit school and joined his family in Hawaii, working for free doing assorted jobs around the office.

Heard's promotion came as a relief and reassurance to many in CART, including Andrew Craig, who noted his vast experience in conducting major races and called him "a valuable asset for the HSP team." But Showtime's abrupt pullout soon thereafter killed the PPV plan Rutherford had so vigorously championed despite widespread criticism.

The collapse of one of HSP's fundamental selling points disturbed previously supportive people within CART, who now became increasingly convinced that maybe the race would not happen after all. Haas quietly withdrew his money and involvement, contrary to the fanfare given upon his arrival. "Once the PPV package had not come about, then the skepticism about the whole event taking place was at an all-time high," Kirby says. "Almost all the teams, press, and everybody worried in that way - the opinion was that this was gonna be a disaster. Nobody knew what the package would have - how full or empty the stands would be... if the race goes off, it will be such a PR boondoggle. Who knows if anyone would see it? Every one (of the teams competing) needs to be psychologically prepared, let alone financially prepared. It was a horror show, not a vacation - it's gonna just give us a week or two of aggravation."

Without Rutherford alongside to publicly defend PPV, Heard now gamely admitted the PPV projections were not as optimistic as hoped, and they vigorously began seeking a replacement TV package. When Speedvision finally agreed to a contract a few weeks before cancellation, the point was already considered moot, and it remained under wraps.

With no money forthcoming from PPV or a title sponsor, and with ticket sales lax, Heard conceded the race would probably lose money in its first year - not an unusual circumstance by any means for a start-up race, but not a positive for a glossy big-bucks enterprise such as this. He told the local NBC affiliate there may not be a full house this year while everyone took a wait- and-see attitude towards it, but "it will be an artistic success" that would stimulate greater interest and profitability in subsequent years, and the HSP staff proceeded under this approach.

 

Click here for Part 5 of 6: Show me the money

©1999 Earl Ma and SpeedCenter

 

 

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