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Jul 14, 2011

FIRST PERSON/OPINION: How Greed And Sloth Killed The AMA Pro Event At VIR

VIR principal Connie Nyholm (center) posed with John Ulrich (left) and Chris Ulrich (right) after taking a two-up ride on the track aboard Chris Ulrich's specially equipped AMA Pro racebike in 2002. Photo by Bruce Wilkins/Virginia Breeze.
FIRST PERSON/OPINION:

How Greed And Sloth Killed The AMA Pro Event At VIR

By John Ulrich

Greed and sloth"”or maybe greed and ignorance"”killed the 2011 AMA Pro event at VIR.

The track promoted its own AMA Pro events from 2001 through 2004, and didn't make much (if any) money. Along came M1 Promotions with a simple solution: Rent us the track and we will assume all risk, handle all the details and pay for everything.

Everything.

With no risk for the track.

With a guaranteed profit for the track.

Everything. As in, paying for the AMA Pro sanction, the haybales, the Airfence deployment, the electricity, the security, the post-event clean-up, even any damage done to the facility.

Everything. As in event promotions and ticket sales.

Besides assuming all risk and guaranteeing a profit for the track, M1 did a good job of actually promoting the race, including blanketing the surrounding area (within a 50-mile radius) with literature and posters, working with dealers to sell tickets, buying billboards and advertisements and commercials, going to local bike nights-- getting the word out, building excitement.

M1 excelled in community outreach, getting involved with local charity fund-raisers, youth groups, you name it. And M1 spent money in the local community, hiring local talent, renting local equipment, using local vendors.

M1 also found its own sponsors for the event, including American Suzuki.

For five good years, The Big Kahuna Nationals went off as planned. The track had no risk and made money as the event venue. Spectator attendance grew dramatically the first four years and even as the economy contracted, was still decent"”down just a little for the weekend overall but actually up on Sunday--in 2009.

For five years, M1 made money. The track made money. The local community received a big boost from racers and race teams and spectators renting hotel rooms and buying food and drinks and gas and everything else people buy when they come into town for a special event.

That all changed before the start of the 2010 season, when the track decided not to renew M1's contract for another five years and instead went it alone. I can imagine the conversation in the track administration building: "Hey, think of all the money we can keep for ourselves if we boot these M1 clowns out and do it all ourselves! How hard could it be?"

The track manager at the time, Josh Lief, then signed a Letter of Intent with AMA Pro Racing, agreeing to hold races in 2010 and 2011.

As it turns out, what M1 had done to build and maintain a viable event was harder than it may have looked, and wasn't getting any easier. Remember that part about no risk for the track? With bike sales way down, American Suzuki cut its event sponsorship from $100,000 in 2009 to $10,000 in 2010. That sponsorship fell to zero for 2011, although the track went right on calling the event "The Suzuki White Lightning Nationals," the name VIR officials came up with for 2010 after throwing out M1 and The Big Kahuna Nationals.

Spectator attendance was way down in 2010, simple sloth compounding the worsening economic problems. As it turns out, it's a lot of work to do all the promotion the way M1 did it. And VIR just didn't do the work.

Complicating matters is VIR's history of tapping into government money on the premise that bringing participants and spectators to big events at the track would boost the local economy, stimulate employment and help reduce area reliance on growing tobacco.

Which brings us to the here and now. About four weeks before the AMA Pro National scheduled for this coming August 12-14, VIR canceled the event. The track's cover story is that there was no agreement or contract in place for the 2011 event. What VIR hasn't revealed is that track principal Connie Nyholm herself signed a deal-point outline before the 2011 AMA Pro schedule was announced in mid-December 2010, agreeing to hold the 2011 AMA Pro Suzuki White Lightning Nationals at VIR based upon the terms included in the 2010 event sanction agreement, otherwise known as the event sanction contract (which was signed after the original 2009 Letter Of Intent). But when the actual completed 2011 event sanction agreement showed up at VIR in early June, Nyholm claimed that revised language in the contract made it a different document than the 2010 sanction agreement, even though it was materially the same"”as in, the same costs, the same procedures, the same requirements.

(No doubt Nyholm will claim I don't know what I am writing about. To address that claim before it is made, I challenge Nyholm to release all the relevant documents to the public, allowing interested parties to compare the material terms and the actual language of each, side by side. Of course, if litigation ensues, the documents are likely to end up in the public record anyway, providing fascinating reading.)

In my opinion, Connie Nyholm weaseled out of her agreement to host the 2011 Suzuki White Lightning Nationals at VIR with no regard for how doing so would hurt the local community and government agencies from which she has so often eagerly sought financial relief and support; the racers and race teams who have put on a good show and supported the track since it reopened 10 years ago; the AMA Pro Racing Superbike Series itself; and loyal fans who have spent their money attending events as VIR.

In other words, I think Nyholm's decision to cancel at the 11th hour demonstrates the VIR administration's focus on wanting to make more money (greed) without actually doing the hard work (sloth).

Greed as in deciding to take event promotion out of the hands of a reliable partner (M1) that had assumed all risk and guaranteed a profit for the track, with the idea that the track could make more money on the back of M1's work by running the event itself.

And sloth, as in, not doing the hard work needed to actually promote the race successfully.

All the other parties involved, and the sport of motorcycle road racing itself, deserved better.