Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

An F1 racetrack in Tucson will cost hundreds of millions of public dollars

The story in today’s Arizona Daily Star about Pima County’s economic development team seeking permission from the county Board of Supervisors to prepare a plan to find a developer who may be interested in some day building an F1 racetrack at the county fairgrounds is getting a lot of buzz on the internets.

Fans of F1 racing are ecstatic, and the CAVEs (Citizens Against Virtually Everything) and the CAAPBADs (Citizens Against Anything Proposed By A Democrat) are certain it’s either a boondoggle we’ll spend millions on and abandon or that we’ll spend millions on and screw up.

But putting the rantings of the permanently dyspeptic aside, is it really feasible?

Sure, anything’s feasible. My father used to say that “Americans (I’ve since changed it for my kids to humans) can do anything. It’s only a matter of engineering, economics and will.”

The will is easy. The engineering and economics are hard.

Open-wheel racing used to be as American as baseball, but not anymore. NASCAR surpassed open-wheel racing in the 1990s and though attendance and TV ratings have been down the past few years, NASCAR is still bigger than professional hockey and basketball in terms of attendance and TV viewers.

In Europe, motor sport racing, especially F1, is the second most popular professional sport after soccer. Formula 1 in Europe is bigger than NASCAR is in America.

But Tucson ain’t Europe. Formula 1 has tried to establish itself in America several times and failed every time. Americans like their race cars to go around in a circle, not make a bunch of squiggly turns every few hundred feet.

NASCAR races on viewer-friendly ovals and some historic tracks are tiny, just a quarter-mile.  Formula 1 tracks are between two and four miles with at least five turns, some left, some right, often including hairpins that bring cars down to granny-on-a-Sunday-drive speeds.

American cities that have tried and failed to host F1 races include Phoenix, Long Beach, Calif., Detroit, Dallas and Indianapolis. All of those cities are much bigger and more cosmopolitan than Tucson.

The latest city to try to make F1 work is Tucson-sized Austin, Texas. It hosted its first F1 race last year and the reviews were smashing. But the cost was enormous.

Austin is the state’s capital and  jet-setting Gov. Rick Perry, likes to rub elbows with the world elite. The state has pledged a subsidy of about $25 million a year for 10 years to underwrite the costs of building the infrastructure needed to build the track, plus other government costs associated with hosting a major event.

To receive that money from the state’s special event fund, Austin had to chip in $40 million over 10 years for a total public investment just shy of $300 million. But a few Texas oil billionaires chipped in to cover Austin’s cost. Private investors built the track, with estimates of its cost at about $300 million. And that didn’t include other investments in new hotels and visitor amenities.

There aren’t a lot of billionaires in Tucson, nor is there a state special events fund. Chances of getting the state to pony up any money for Tucson, which the conservative Legislature hates, are nil.

What do you think the chances are of county voters approving $300 million in a bond election for a racetrack for millionaires, irrespective of the possible economic impact of the race? Pretty slim.

Plus, it will take more than a racetrack to land F1. Its billionaire owners and millionaire drivers and wealthy fans need swanky quarters near the track. Shuttling owners and drivers from resorts like La Paloma or Star Pass 45 minutes to one-hour south to the fairgrounds for the race ain’t going to cut it. Which means high-dollar hotels would need to be built near the track.

But hotels need guests all year, not just during race week. Who will stay there when the track is empty when Tucson’s existing high-dollar resorts are struggling to fill rooms?

It would take a public-private investment of at least $500 million, and probably closer to $1 billion to bring an F1 race to Tucson. There might be that kind of money in the oil-rich Texas capitol, but there isn’t in the 6th most impoverished city in America.

It’s an interesting idea, but the county’s economic development team might spend its time, and the county’s money, better by finding a way to build a new arena in town that can be filled with rodeos, monster trucks, arena football, minor-league hockey, music concerts and other events all year than a massive track that will get used for two weeks out of 50 each year.

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