EDMONTON - The annual IndyCar auto race in Edmonton was shunted into history Wednesday after the city and the event sponsor couldn't agree on who should pay for a $3-million track retrofit.
“It's a business decision at the end of the day, both for them and for us, and we couldn't make the money work. We just couldn't make the money work,” Lorna Rosen, the city's chief financial officer, told a news conference at City Hall.
The decision waves the checkered flag on a six-year run of mid-summer open-wheel racing in the Alberta capital - the first three years with the old Champ Car series and the last three with IndyCar.
The events brought international racing names like Danica Patrick, Dario Franchitti and Toronto's Paul Tracy to Edmonton, but it also delivered crushing financial losses to the city totalling an estimated $12 million over the last three years alone.
The city had run the event through an arm's-length group called Edmonton Northlands, but three months ago it signed a new deal with Montreal's Octane Management, a private operator that also runs the Formula One event in Montreal.
The three-year deal was announced in late July at the Edmonton Indy event, with Octane taking over the costs and the city promising to kick in $5.5 million over three years in sponsorship money.
But in the end it was the city's downtown City Centre Airport that killed the event.
The races had been run on a 1.96-mile temporary circuit at airport, located just north of downtown.
City council, however, voted last year to close the airport in stages to make room for residential and business development. More and more air traffic was to be shifted over time to the much-larger Edmonton International Airport south of the city.
The airport has two runways. The airport was able to stay open during previous IndyCar events by keeping one runway open for air traffic and letting the cars race on the other.
But one of the two runways closed for good late this summer, meaning that for the airport to stay open during future IndyCar events, the closed-down runway needed to be retrofitted at an estimated of cost of $3 million to handle the race cars. Most of the money would go to repaving.
Octane wanted the city to pay the cost and gave the city an Oct. 29 deadline to pony up in order for Octane to launch a ticket drive.
The city balked and the deadline passed, leading to Wednesday's announcement.
“Until the last minute, we hoped that the city would agree with our legitimate request to provide us a site equivalent to the one the previous promoters have worked with and without having our group investing in groundworks,” Octane president Francois Dumontier said in a statement.
“The city's final decision has made it impossible for us - as professional and experienced motorsports promoters - to offer an event complying with our high quality standards.”
Rosen noted that while the track improvements would have been a one-time cost, the event was going to have to find a new location anyway after the three-year deal ended because by then both runways would close.
The IRL, the umbrella sanctioning body for IndyCar, said in a release it will seek to find a replacement for the July 24 event, which currently leaves IndyCar with a month-long gap between races at the height of the summer holiday season.
The Toronto Indy - now the lone Canadian stop on the IndyCar schedule - runs July 10, and the Mid-Ohio race is set for Aug. 7.
“It's unfortunate that in a time when IndyCar is experiencing momentum and growth, the city would want to miss out on the opportunity to be part of it,” said the IRL said in a statement.
IndyCar is trying to rebound from years of low TV ratings and diminished fan interest due to a split in open wheel racing that led to two competing leagues - Champ Car and IndyCar series. The two series merged three years ago under the IndyCar standard but the circuit still lags far behind NASCAR racing in popularity, TV exposure and revenue.
Edmonton was considered one of the better attended IndyCar events, though the IRL forbids event sponsors from releasing attendance figures.
But Edmonton city councillor Kim Krushell said that even without the hard data, it was clear there were smaller crowds every year.
“Our citizens weren't buying tickets and I gather tourists weren't buying tickets to go to the event,” said Krushell.
“That's a real concern for me having to make decisions on how much we want to backstop a race.
“If our own citizens don't want to go, how are we going to be successful going forward?”