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in the world of drag racing

Black Bar

The latest update as of September 25, 1999

Today we're going to venture "off-topic" and look at the business of sports as it applies to Vancouver (Canada). While this is a drag racing site, there could be some parallels drawn between "our" sport and other professional sports.

For the last few weeks, the Vancouver sports news has been dominated by the demise of our baseball club, the Vancouver Canadians. The team, which had been profitable for the owners (a Japanese conglomerate), was purchased last year by a Sacramento, California, businessman. He kept the club in Vancouver until his new stadium, built with public (taxpayers) money, was finished and made it known that 1999 would be the final season for the team in Vancouver.

Throughout the season, fan support remained solid and the team went on to have a very successful year. In fact, at this writing, they will play the final game of the minor league World Series against the Charlotte Knights in Las Vegas tonight. The Canadians were successful and profitable, but they are gone and Vancouver is now without a professional baseball team. Why?

The reasons are several: lack of local ownership, too small a venue and too small a market. The first, ownership, is easy to understand. Pro sports, in a small market, is a risky venture. The ROI (return on investment) can range from minimal to disastrous. The prospects of appreciation in value of the team are likewise. In Canada, any sport played outdoors is at the mercy of the weather, and a profitable season can sink into the red quicker than a cloudburst.

The venue, Nat Bailey Stadium in this instance, was too small and offered too few of the amenities that spectators and players are accustomed to. With a seating capacity of just over 6000, compared to a league average of over 10,000, gate revenue was severely handicapped. And in Canada, unlike many other countries, no taxpayer assistance to construct a new facility was available. Finally, although we like to think of Vancouver as a BIG city, with a metro population of 2,000,000, it's hardly a blip on the radar of the North American pro sports consciousness.

The realities of the situation sunk in, people accepted it is a part of the change that is radically reshaping the economy and culture of our city and our country. At least we still had our football and soccer teams and the hockey team and the basketball team. Or we thought we did....

Thursday morning I awoke to hear the ominous rumours that the Vancouver Grizzlies basketball team was being sold to a St. Louis businessman, Bill Laurie. Mr. Laurie has done well in life, marrying the heiress to the Wal-Mart empire and as such, he has enough financial clout to do pretty much anything he wishes. Thursday he decided to buy a basketball team to continue his connection to the sport he played in college. And the Grizzlies just happened to be for sale.

At the noon news conference, the sale was confirmed and the future of the team (in Vancouver) was hotly debated. Only a few months previously, Mr. Laurie also purchased an almost-new arena and the hockey team in St. Louis. With a building to fill, and only a hockey team to do it, the addition of a basketball franchise would definitely help. While he did not make a commitment to keep the team in Vancouver, he didn't mention any plans to move it to St. Louis either. People would have to be very naive to think he plans to keep the team here any longer than it takes to gain league approval for a transfer.

But the bad news didn't stop there. As the day wore on, the rumours of the hockey team, the Vancouver Canucks, moving to Portland, Oregon, began to gain currency. With the basketball team gone, could the hockey franchise be far behind? At this point, everyone involved strongly denies it, but the writing is on the wall. So how did it come to this?

A little background is in order for those not familiar with the sports scene in Vancouver. Until 1992, the hockey team had a local owner, the Griffiths family and the team played in the publicly-built Pacific Coliseum. Dissatisfied with the terms of the building lease, Arthur Griffiths set out to construct a new downtown arena with his own money. To justify the huge outlay of capital, he also approached the NBA (National Basketball Association) and applied for an expansion franchsise. With two major league teams, providing a minimum of 90 home dates per year, the new arena project seemed feasible.

Two years later, with the basketball franchise granted and the arena nearly finished, financial reality set in and Griffiths was forced to seek a partner to finish the project. In hindsight we might well ask "Why did you ever start the project without the funds to complete it?". "Surely you knew, going in, how much the basketball franchise would cost, how much the arena would cost, so why did you attempt it without sufficient backing?"

A "saviour" promptly surfaced, in the form of a Seattle billionaire, John McCaw, Jr. He came into the picture to "help" Arthur Griffiths, taking "only" 51% of the shares in Northwest Sports Enterprises. Hmm... 51% is a majority isn't it? Can you guess what happened next? Almost as soon as the arena was finished and the new Grizzlies basketball team took to the court, McCaw pulled the pin on Griffiths and bought out his remaining share of the business. Overnight, control of our pro sports destiny in Vancouver moved across the border to Washington state.

Now, five years later, McCaw claims to be tired of the continuing losses from the operations of the basketball and hockey teams. No mention of how the arena is faring, although it must be turning a profit, to the detriment of the profit-loss statements of the teams. For the last few months, he has made it known that he would like to take on a partner at Orca Bay Entertainment (holding company of the arena and the teams). Several parties surfaced, mainly from south of the border, but none were interested in the terms being offered to be a "partner".

Then, Bill Laurie walks in, offers (reportedly) $200,000,000 (US) for the Grizzlies and the Orca Bay empire gains a large chunk of cash and divests itself of a "money-losing" team. They still have the Canucks and the arena, but with $200 million in hand already, could sell the hockey team and afford to just sit on the arena and watch the land value appreciate. It's located in a prime downtown area and could foreseeably be demolished and redeveloped for a condominium project at a substantial profit in the near future.

So, in a very short space of time, Vancouver has gone from being a major league sports city to just another place on the fringes of the continent. No matter how fervently we wish to be seen as a "world-class" city, we've lost that status, at least in the sports world. Now I've got to wonder how this will affect our bid for the 2010 Winter Olympics. The fact that Arthur Griffiths, the man, who in essence, sold us down the river in pro sports, is heading the Olympic effort should be worrisome enough. Losing our two major sports franchises might be all that is needed to put us out of the running for the Olympics now.

So, in the final analysis, does any of this have anything to do with drag racing? Yes, in a roundabout way. Long-time fans of the sport may remember that Canada did have an NHRA National Event at one time. The "Molson GrandNational", held annually at St. Pie, Quebec's, Sanair Dragway, was on the NHRA schedule from 1971 until its demise in 1993. When it was dropped from the schedule, the official (and very convenient) reason given was the Canadian government ban on leaded gasoline. Yes, that could have been valid, but the exemptions granted to drag racing to continue using leaded gas have invalidated that excuse.

So what really killed the Molson GrandNational? The same things that doomed the Vancouver baseball team. Too small a market, too small a venue and lack of local ownership strength. Sanair was a first-class facility when it opened in 1970, but over the years, the profits were not re-invested in the track and gradually it fell behind the new tracks being constructed and older ones upgraded in the USA. Attendance, while healthy, was limited and television coverage was virtually non-existent. The owner, Jacques Guertin, refused to upgrade the venue, or sell it to someone who either could or would spend the funds necessary to bring it up to major-league status. That, combined with the leaded fuel "crisis", made NHRA's decision to pull the plug a very simple one indeed.

So what are the chances that NHRA will ever hold another National Event in Canada? Absolutely zero, nada, zip. It will never happen, unless someone with a very large vision and bank account, in one of the few major cities in this country, makes it happen with a new, state-of-the-art facility. With the Canadian economy in its perpetual doldrums, increasingly onerous environmental restrictions and the small markets, the chances of it ever happening are about the same as me winning the US Nationals. (Maybe even worse in fact).

After all that doom and gloom, let's have a little good news, eh? Okay, we'll go to Rockingham Dragway and see how well Glen May's "Cranberry Connection" is running at the IHRA Carquest Autumn Nationals this weekend. Oops. Looks like his dream season is turning into a "nightmare" weekend for the Richmond, BC, Pro Mod team. Friday's two sessions produced a best of 6.62 at 212 mph, good for only sixth alternate, with two more chances later today. I guess after all the success they've enjoyed this year, one bad event had to be in the cards. But I'll go out on a limb and predict that they'll rebound strongly today and be in the field for eliminations tomorrow. Check back later for an update on his progress.

Saturday 2:00 PM (P.D.T.) update:  Glen May's 6.540 at 216.03 mph, in the third (of four) qualifying sessions was an improvement, but it still leaves him in the fifth alternate position. Tonight's "Night of Thunder" last-ditch effort will have to stepped up considerably to make the field. The bubble currently sits at 6.495 and will no doubt drop even further as the track conditions seem to be improving and with the expected better air tonight.

Also, in drag racing news, Brisbane, Australia's, Steve Harker, is making his NHRA debut this weekend at a Division Two meet at Richmond, Virginia. With only six cars attempting to qualify in Federal-Mogul Funny Car yesterday, Harker's half-pass 7.72 at only 111 mph, placed him # 3 in the field, going into today's final qualifying sessions. Australia's quickest alcohol funny car (at 5.72) and fastest alcohol car (at nearly 255 mph) is testing the waters of "big-time" NHRA racing for the balance of the season, with the Richmond event serving as a test session for upcoming appearances at the final five national events of the 1999 season. We'll have updates on his progress also throughout the weekend.

Last drag racing item for the day: This weekend sees the final event of the NHRA Canadian National Open series running at Ashcroft, BC's, "Eagle Motorplex". While there won't be any Top Alcohol (Federal-Mogul) cars in competition, all the other sportsman categories, including Top Comp, will be in attendance. It's hoped that both the racer and spectator numbers are healthy enough for Ashcroft to continue operations for the 2000 season. The "word" is that a poor turnout this weekend could indeed be the final nail in the coffin for a track that has had more than its share of bad luck over the last few years.

Gee, this is starting to sound all too familiar, isn't it? A very small market, a limited venue, under-funded ownership... Could yet another Canadian sports "franchise" be going down the drain? Sadly, it may be all too true. The fact is, ever since Mission Raceway re-opened in 1992, the future of the Eagle Motorplex has been in doubt. Prior to Mission's rebirth, Ashcroft was the only British Columbia track within reasonable driving distance of the population centre of the Lower Mainland. With Mission Raceway back in action, the desire to drive three or four hours through the Fraser Canyon to Ashcroft, instead of less than an hour to Mission, seriously diminished Ashcroft's prospects.

Combine that with a deteriorating track surface, due to the extremes of winter weather at Ashcroft and the handwriting was on the wall as early as three years ago. While they still have a Divisional championship event, 1999 might well have been the final year for that "plum". If next year's Division Six schedule drops Ashcroft from the divisional event roster, the party will almost certainly be over for the 'Plex. Despite the best efforts, and they have worked very hard, of Wyatt McMurray and Bill Kraus, the "little track that could" might not be able to stay in operation any longer.

Late update: The noon sports news just announced that yet another local pro sports team has left Vancouver. In this case, the North Shore Indians lacrosse team has moved to Kelowna, BC. Admittedly, we're talking minor league sports here, but at this rate.... will the last team to leave the city please turn out the lights?

Black Bar
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