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Jersey, sure?

With Formula One now under American management, many fans are wondering if a new US Grand Prix East may be on the cards. While pondering that proposition, we look back at an interview we did with the last promoter who tried to stage such a race, Leo Hindrey Jr. This interview was first published in Prodijee magazine, edition #15 July 2014.

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WHAT DOES MISSING THE 2014 F1 CALENDAR MEAN FOR THE EVENT?

It’s disappointing to be sure, as construction is already well along. We need to be fully respectful, however, of the F1 schedule, and the need to deliver a race that has a sustainable capital structure – racing now for the first time in 2015 ensures both.

DOES THIS DECISION PUT A DENT IN THE EVENT’S CREDIBILITY?

Having a successful Formula 1 race along the Hudson River opposite the skyline of one of the world’s greatest cities is what will give the Grand Prix of America its credibility. Now we get to make everything perfect.

Leo Hindery at Port Imperial 2

PUTTING THIS RACE TOGETHER HAS BEEN A DIFFICULT PROCESS.

It is a challenge because (the circuit) is sort of plonked down right in an urban area, and one of the densest areas of the United States. In fairness, I think I misunderstood how hard it would be in an urban setting with a street race. It has taken a wonderful partnership among the Governor of the State of New Jersey and two mayors whose towns we run the course on.

The sport is one that has such high expectations, whether you are a fan, a driver, team engineer, a team owner or sponsor – and then there is Formula One Management (FOM) and people like Charlie Whiting (Formula 1 race director), Jean Todt (president, Federation Internationale de l’Automobile) and others – it’s not been easy, we are here with high expectations, trying to get ready for it.

When you deal with the very top end of racing the expectation is perfection. The fans want it to be perfect, the drivers, very understandably, need it to be perfect – the best engineer, the best car and the best driver should win. The fans have to get in and out (of the circuit) easily and enjoy the race, they need to see a safe and exciting race and then you have got the sponsors and the sanctioning body itself and Bernie (Ecclestone) has very high expectations so I’ll be glad when it’s over, let’s put it that way.

THERE HAVE BEEN A FEW CHANGES ALONG THE WAY

The physical course hasn’t changed in all the years since we proposed it, not one foot. The only challenges that were unmet were that we had trouble getting it financed as a private initiative. I underestimated the challenges of trying to announce the race in the United States in the middle of a financial meltdown. I carried it longer than I expected to personally, and it took more patience from Bernie than he expected. We thought we would be racing June of 2013 and now we are not racing until (2015).

Lewis Hamilton at United States GP in Austin, Texas.

Lewis Hamilton at United States GP

AND YOU HAVE DONE IT WITH NO PUBLIC MONEY.

One of the commitments we made early on was to take no public money whatsoever, so we are actually paying for the privilege – we are not receiving any resources from the state or towns, or even across the river in New York City. We set a pretty high hurdle for ourselves in saying we were not going to take any government assistance and that has made it more challenging – it is something we believe in, but it has certainly compounded the difficulty.

WHO THEN IS PAYING THE BILLS?

Being private, we don’t identify our investors, except to say that, currently, I am the largest investor. All of us are obviously grateful to have a 15-year executed sanctioning agreement which will assure the Grand Prix of America for years to come.

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FOM MANAGEMENT INJECTED SOME MONEY AT ONE POINT.

Yes, there was a time when we were putting the final financing in place where FOM, for a short while, did jump in and bridge us over but that has come and gone.

ADDING TO THE COMPLEXITY IS YOU HAVE A FINITE DEADLINE.

We have very populous roads so we didn’t get to build a 10ft tall fence around it and just hide out; we had to do it right within the confines of these two towns. We have a really wonderful partnership with Hermann Tilke, Peter Wahl and Christian Epp from (track designer) Tilke Engineering, if they hadn’t perfected the concept of turning appropriate streets into good racing circuits we would never have been able to flesh it out.

United States Grand Prix West Long Beach California 1977. Mario Andretti in his Lotus Ford. CD#0776-3301-3813-102

Mario Andretti in his Lotus Ford at the United States Grand Prix West Long Beach California 1977.

IT’S ONE THING TO CREATE A TRACK ON EXISTING ROADS, BUT YOU HAVE ALSO CREATED A GREAT RACE TRACK. THAT’S NOT AN EASY THING TO DO.

One of the things that we do like about it – and I was a car racer myself – is if you don’t have a challenging course in the urban setting, you really haven’t accomplished what you set out to. We have got a lot of elevation change and a lot of passing zones – very high speed with a lot of places to get by the other guy.

A few years ago a courageous airplane captain with an engine failure put his US Airlines plane down in the Hudson (River) and that is exactly where our race is.

About half of the course is parallel to the river but then we have somewhere that was formed glacially, thousands of years ago, called the Palisades (a line of steep cliffs along the west side of the lower Hudson River), so half the course is at river height and then it shoots up to the top of the Palisades and back down; you get that high-end elevation change. From overhead it would look something like Montreal but in terms of challenge it is like Spa, the full ring at Nurburging, even Le Mans with its elevation changes, so I think the teams are very excited about it.

THE CIRCUIT IS SAID TO HAVE THE CHALLENGE OF SPA AND THE CHARM OF MONACO.

Young Sebastian Vettel coined that phrase – I instantly stole it. Having been a car racer myself, at LeMans four times, you really want someone like Vettel to like it as a race course.

Selfishly, you want the guys who have their names on the cars to feel like its Monaco, which is the biggest party in the series and always will be – it’s the most entertaining of the venues. (And) we’ve got the advantage of New York City, a very exciting skyline, visible from every camera shot.

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THIS PROJECT IS VERY DIFFERENT TO WHAT YOU HAVE DONE IN THE PAST.

It is without a doubt the most challenging thing I have ever done. I have had a fun and really rewarding career with a lot of challenges, but if I didn’t love racing so much I don’t think we’d be here. But in fairness you have to give all the credit in the world to Bernie. He has said, for as long as I have known him, and frankly long before I met him, that he wanted one of the hallmarks of his stewardship of the series to be a race in the New York City area. He really has been enormously patient. People kept showing him ideas but none of them came together.

I got involved because someday I’d like people to say I had a little bit to do with bringing F1 back to this part of the United States.

I have the privilege of living in the city of New York, I love it, my heart and soul kind of live here… you want to bring something nice to your town and if you love the sport, to do it in racing is extra special. But what a challenge it’s been, I’ll tell you.

US RACE FANS AREN’T KNOWN AS F1 AFFICIANADOS.

I think we have a responsibility, in the early years, to educate the people. I started my own racing career in NASCAR, which is something very different to F1 (but) I think the advantage we have is, it’s a pretty diverse country and it is becoming increasingly very high tech.

The thing I like most about this high end of the sport is that I am not sure stock cars with carburettors are going to stay interesting to people for years to come – that is NASCAR, it’s not F1. F1 will always be at the pinnacle of engineering, of driver capabilities, and it is pretty easy to tell a story about a Sebastian Vettel and why you would want to come and see him, particularly on a course that is a seven minute ferry ride from Midtown Manhattan.

GPA Port Imperial

My guess is that most of our attendees won’t have seen any car race in person. There will be a wonderful group of people who will come out of Europe and Asia who go to every race; they are easy to satisfy because they already know the sport. There are some people who come down from Canada who have been going to the Montreal race year after year and they will be easy to satisfy. It’s this younger crowd, who have some education and tech background, that are our challenge, but the race is the last thing we do for the week – you entertain these people for five or six days in and around New York and then you give them a good car race at the end.

I am not sure I would want to do this in a more challenging geography of the United States but I think it is going to be easy to get fans engaged in and around New York. The city has its own entertainment opportunities, and I do know, from Charlie and Hermann, that we are going to give them a pretty darn good car race.

DOES THE RACE NEED AN AMERICAN DRIVER?

I think it does, over time. I am disappointed that we don’t have one now. Alexander Rossi is certainly someone who might make it someday and Connor Daly, (son of ex F1 driver, Derek Daly), is a very fine driver. We have got to show the young drivers, that they can build a fan base here in the United States and have a very lucrative career without feeling like they have to head to stock cars. Two or three years from now I’d be very disappointed if one of the young American drivers coming up hasn’t shifted from Indy Cars to F1. If I had to choose who that might be right now, I would probably say Connor Daly.

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PUTTING A RACE LIKE THIS TOGETHER IS TOUGH ENOUGH WITHOUT THE GLOBAL FINANCIAL MELTDOWN.

It feels like I was about 25 years It feels like I was about 25 years old when I came into this project, and now I sit here in my mid-60s looking like a frail old man (laughs). This thing’s been hard. But again, I can’t emphasis enough that if it weren’t for a great governor in New Jersey, two really supportive mayors, a lot of support from Charlie Whiting, who likes the course for his drivers, and especially Bernie Ecclestone, we wouldn’t be where we are today. Anyone of them could have said “no” at any time, but they never did.

(Bernie’s) not always the easiest person to satisfy but he is certainly the most committed to the project. I give him all the credit for hanging in there while I tried to put it back together, which we accomplished earlier this year in the Spring, not long before the Canadan GP.

THE TRACK WILL FEATURE PERMANENT AND TEMPORARY INFRASTRUCTURE.

It’s a really clever design. It is four stories high, the 24 identical pits occupy the ground floor of a very-high quality mixed-use municipal parking garage that during race week is converted to pits on the bottom, with the series’ ‘Paddock Club’ and our own ‘Club Of America’ above them. After the race, the building goes back to being a garage with some light retail where the pits were.

The pits has full access from the back and is very deep and very wide, which is what the guys demanded. It’s got terraces that project out from the parking garage so that in the building itself you will have your hospitality level but you will walk out on a terrace that will look straight down onto the pits – it’s like nothing in the sport to be honest with you. We can accommodate something in the order of 10,000 people in a club setting, and immediately opposite that is another very high end, high viewing stand, so unlike a lot of the venues, we’ll have something in the order of 20,000 viewers right there at the pit area.

US Grand Prix Watkins Glen NY 1974. Emerson Fittipaldi winning race in McLaren Ford. CD#0776-3301-4373-15.

Emerson Fittipaldi won the 1974 US Grand Prix Watkins Glen NY driving a McLaren Ford.

HOLDING AN EVENT LIKE THIS SO CLOSE TO NEW YORK RAISES SECURITY CONCERNS.

We’re are very fortunate in that there is not a single residence within the circumference of the course and that is the reality of this steep Palisades cliff, so we actually have a wonderful ability to close off the circuit. Unlike a street course, in say Shanghai or Singapore, there’s nobody in the middle of our course and that really makes the security profile easier to manage. We have got a river alongside about half the course, which is a sort of a basic barrier unto itself, and New York, having gone through the tragedy of 9/11, probably has the best Homeland Security profile in America.

We also hired, as one of our partner colleagues the fellow who ran all of Homeland Security for The Meadowlands football and basketball projects, he comes out of the FBI. So as tricky as it would appear from the outside, (security) is probably the one area that I worry about the least.

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ANY NEGATIVE SENTIMENT FROM RESIDENTS OR TRADERS?

I hoped we’ve nipped that in the bud by paying these towns a not inconsiderable amount of money for the privilege. Their schools, elderly centres and civic budgets have all been advantaged by our presence, we will generate a lot of tax revenue.

This February the Super Bowl is coming to the New York area right near our site. We have brought these people the economic advantage of 15 Super Bowls in a row and they didn’t have to put up a nickel for the privilege. In fact, we wrote each of them a cheque and that has really made it a partnership between ourselves, the state and towns.

A GP IS MUCH MORE THAN A MOTOR RACE. HOW DO YOU MANAGE THE MANY DIFFERENT ASPECTS?

You hire really good people. Chris Pook is probably the expert in racing on street courses; he came aboard as an assistant to me and has been a Godsend. We hired a wonderful guy named Dennis Robinson who used to run the New Jersey Sports Authority, which is the professional football-basketball stadium and arena in this area. We hired a group called Legends, which is an organisation owned jointly by the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Yankees, to help with ticket sales; but your point is well taken. There are 37 stand-alone agreements with various providers and contractors, including who is going to pour the wine and cook the hot dogs. Again, it is a big, big jigsaw puzzle and if you don’t have a closed facility (and) you have to put (the facility) up and take it down every season, it makes it harder.

And I gotta tell you, when it’s over, I may have a couple of Fosters and sit by the barbie with (US-based Australian TV commentator, Leigh) Diffy. Diffy is going to call the race, he, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett, I’ve known those guys a long time and the four of us are getting the hell out of New York on the Monday after the Sunday, I promise you.

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David Hobbs and Leigh Diffy.

WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNT FROM THIS WHOLE EXPERIENCE?

One thing I have always known in my career is, you are as good as the people around you. I have a reputation – I hope it is true – of hiring great women and men and we tried to do that here as well. I can’t imagine a better team. I don’t take any credit. If I have any credit in this thing it’s trying to accommodate Bernie Ecclestone, who I consider a challenging friend.

We hired Peter Wahl and Hermann Tilke, which was the smartest thing we could have ever done and then we went and hired some great women and men, both from the sport itself and from venue management. But, in this particular market, would I do it again? I don’t know. I am going to ask Diffy if I should do it again, but I am hoping so.

“(Bernie’s) not always the easiest person to satisfy but he is certainly the most committed to the project. I give him all the credit for hanging in there while I put (the event) back together”

LEO HINDERY JR

Leo Hindery Jr1

Leo Hindery Jr is executive chairman and promoter of the Grand Prix of America at Port Imperial. Away from the track, he is managing partner of intermedia partners, a series of media industry private equity funds he founded in 1988 and ran until 1997. In 1999, Hindery was chairman and CEO of GlobalCenter Inc, a major internet services company and from 2001-2004, he was chairman and CEO of the yes network, which he founded to be the regional television home of the New York Yankees.

Hindery has been recognised as international cable executive of the year, cable television operator of the year, one of Business Week’s ‘Top 25 Executives Of The Year’, and one of the cable industry’s ‘25 Most Influential Executives Over The Past 25 years’. In 2012, he was inducted into the cable Hall Of Fame. Hindery is also the author of the Biggest Game Of All and It Takes A CEO: It’s Time To Lead With Integrity.

A racing driver in his own right, Hindery scored a class win in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2005 and a second-place class finish in 2003. He raced in the American Le Mans series, the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series, and NASCAR’S Winston West Series and Sportsman Series.

Darren House

Interview: Darren House.

Photos: Ford Motor Company, Watkins Glen International, Red Bull.