1. Archive

NASCAR has yellow flag in New York

It was as perfect as a pock-marked, fallow, flawed old industrial site could be.

Interstate 695 curled on concrete overpasses nearby. Access, egress.

This chunk of wasteland was a seemingly fertile ground for NASCAR to seed itself into the sort of urban Northeastern market it craves.

But it didn't work.

Nearly a decade before NASCAR focused on a dreary piece of Staten Island for its cherished toehold in New York, developers envisioned a similar but more conservative prize in Baltimore: a new, monied fan base, big-market exposure, available land.

It didn't happen, simply because residents didn't want a racetrack there. Many on Staten Island apparently have a similar view, so Baltimore's legacy remains a cautionary tale about the limits of the seemingly boundless popularity of NASCAR.

It showcases some rare obstacles for powerful promoter/developer International Speedway Corp., which has entered into a joint agreement to purchase 676 acres for an 80,000-seat }-mile track and mall to open by 2009. Though terms were not disclosed, industry sources estimate the project would cost at least $500-million.

"ISC has done these things before," said Joe Mattioli III, the would-be Baltimore developer. "They have the experience and the expertise. But knowing what you're doing and getting it done are two different things."

+ + +

Mattioli knew what he was doing. He had a grand plan and was ahead of the game. He spent nearly five years trying to put a 60,000-seat racetrack on three different Maryland sites. At the end, Mattioli felt like someone changed the rules in the middle.

The son of Pocono Raceway board chairman Dr. Joseph Mattioli, he had noticed the growth NASCAR was beginning to experience. In recent years, tracks have opened in Chicago, Fontana, Calif., Homestead, Kansas City, Kan. (all ISC properties), Las Vegas and Fort Worth, Texas. Located between venues in Dover, Del., the site of this weekend's MBNA America 400, Richmond, Va., and Long Pond, Pa., the Maryland/Washington/Philadelphia corridor is home to more than 15-million, certainly enough, he thought, to fill a 60,000-seat track once a year.

Mattioli and his development organizations settled on a $100-million tri-oval on the 100-acre waterfront site in Anne Arundel County, south of Baltimore's Key Bridge, after being invited by then-county executive John Gary. But by 1999, opposition was massing. Newly elected county executive Janet Owens, who ran on an antigrowth plank, fired an adviser who was being paid to lobby for their cause. Pressure from local residents prompted the Maryland Port Authority, which oversees the land, to unanimously reject the proposal.

"I guess what surprised me was we were invited in," Mattioli said. "The county passed legislation allowing for the development and for six months we were flying along.

"It was disappointing, yes. But it is the reality of trying to build something in a metro area."

+ + +

There is one distinct difference between the Baltimore failure and the plan to put a track in New York: the France family wants the New York track badly. NASCAR, founded by the family and now run by Brian France, has been a vocal advocate. ISC, founded and run by the Frances, would build it.

When the Mattiolis announced their intentions in 1998 to move a Busch series race from their facility in South Boston, Va., to Baltimore, NASCAR's reception was chilly, and there was no guarantee of a Winston Cup date in the future. NASCAR will make a Nextel Cup date available immediately if a New York track is built.

But local support is frosty, with Staten Island's three councilmen reflecting their constituents' disdain.

"I think its a hair-brained scheme," District 49 councilman Michael McMahon said. "I'm willing to listen, but I'm very skeptical."

James Oddo, District 50 councilman, said he also was willing to listen but added, "The problems this thing potentially creates jump off the page."

The main problem, both said, is traffic.

With three of its four bridges overused and the 60-square-mile island's main thoroughfares "glorified buggy carts," Oddo said, moving 80,000 people on a race weekend is not possible. More than 257,000 vehicles are registered to 450,000 residents. If NASCAR has a plan, he'd like to see it. He didn't hear much he liked in an initial meeting with NASCAR representatives last month, including a proposed high-speed ferry to New Jersey.

"They seem like nice guys and gentlemen," Oddo said, "and the comment that resonated in my head the most and the only reason I did not come out full bore against was they said, "Jim, our customers know they have to wait in line to get to our facilities.' But there is a point to which they won't wait. If people wait for hours, they will come here the first year and will not come the second year."

Part of Staten Islanders' reticence can be traced to their home's perceived history of second-class status.

"The motto is "Build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone,' " Oddo said. "It's grounded in the fact that this used to be green spaces and woods and rural until the 1960s, until greedy developers came in and took advantage of out-of-date building codes.

"We were the receptacle of New York City's c--- for 50 years."

Because the site is designated a brown field, or environmentally distressed area, and located on a major waterway, NASCAR must address environmental concerns in a lengthy permitting process that reaches to the federal level.

"The site is extremely environmentally sensitive," McMahon said. "Thirty percent of it is federally protected wetlands. In fact, they would have to clean up any environmental damage from the prior tenant. Certainly, there is lead in the soil."

NASCAR is sweetening its sales pitch in preparation for a struggle. Oddo and other Staten Island politicians have been invited to attend the Oct. 10 Nextel Cup race at Kansas City, Kan. Kansas City officials were steadfastly opposed to ISC building a track in the late 1990s, but when then-NASCAR CEO Bill France Jr. dispatched local legend Rusty Wallace to do some politicking, the deal got done.

Oddo said he does not see how Kansas City relates to New York, so he will not be in attendance.

"A, we cannot go there on their dime. It's a conflict of interest," he said. "Frankly, with the current climate on Staten Island, the last thing I want to do is give critics a chance _ even if I go coach and stay in a (bad) hotel _ to say I jetted off to get wined and dined.

"B, if they want to show me they run a professional operation, well, good, but it doesn't solve our problems here and it doesn't move me an inch closer to supporting this."

In a show of caution, ISC does not plan to contract an architect to render sketches of the proposed track until the progress of permitting can be gauged in December.

If there is momentum in the community against the project, Mattioli said, even the most powerful race promoter might not overcome it. Marylanders were more content with a full-time dredge site in their neighborhood than a racetrack that plays host to a major event once a year.

"The environmental issues are easy to address," he said. "Traffic can be dealt with. There are experts in acoustics that can tell you what the decibels will be within a quarter mile, a half mile, in humidity and other weather. But the thing you cannot beat is the perception that racing is going to ruin their lifestyle.

"I've heard everything from, "Pollution from the race cars is going to kill our trees.' It's unfortunate that the facts are not necessarily the ruling factor."

And if public sentiment rules again, NASCAR might have to look elsewhere.