Raceway within a beltway

Speed: The American Le Mans racing series will make Washington a stop on its tour one weekend a year for the next 10 years.

July 18, 2002|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - For those who visit the nation's capital hoping to take in the hallmarks of democracy, this event might seem a bit out of place: the Cadillac Grand Prix of Washington, D.C., a three-day production starting tomorrow featuring high-speed car races, motorcycle shows and monster truck rides.

So much for gazing at the Lincoln Memorial (mph: 0). This is an attraction for tourists who get impatient with monuments that just sit there, going nowhere.

Under an arrangement brokered by the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, the American Le Mans racing series will make Washington a stop on its 10-city tour one weekend a year for the next decade. The promoters hope to turn a temporary speedway at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium into an international racing destination.

This is the first car race in the capital in 83 years, and it shows. Though delighted by the prospect of tapping into the lucrative motorsports market, some of the Grand Prix's promoters say they've encountered a vague sense of bewilderment as they advertise an adrenaline-pumping event in a city not known for car-racing fans.

"There are a lot of people going, `What the heck is this?'" said David Cope, director of business development and sales for Gilco Sports, the Bethesda company that is handling sales and marketing for the Grand Prix.

"But there are lots of race fans in this area who didn't have anywhere to go, so this is fertile territory."

Still, it's unfamiliar ground even for some of the people paid to promote the city.

"These are sort of prize-winning cars, aren't they?" Mary Rudolph, a lobbyist for the Greater Washington Board of Trade, asked tentatively. "I've got to look it up on the Internet, because I'm probably going to get asked questions about it."

The race could attract big audiences beyond the Beltway - CBS and NBC are each airing one of the races in national broadcasts - and organizers say they expect fans from along the East Coast to make up at least half the crowd.

Over the weekend, Grand Prix promoters predict that about 70,000 fans will fill the stands along the asphalt speedway - a track built over two parking lots at RFK Stadium.

The marquee event comes Sunday, with the American Le Mans race, an endurance contest in which more than 30 high-tech sports cars will whip around a 1.7-mile loop for 2 hours and 45 minutes.

For a sports marketer named Chris Lencheski, the whir of cars racing up to 200 mph will be the sound of success, especially after his three-year battle to bring the race here.

Initially, he hoped the race could run directly on the city streets - as it does in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the French event on which this series is based. But Lencheski was told this would not happen in a federal city with increasingly tight security.

So the raceway was built. One afternoon this week, Lencheski, who heads National Grand Prix Holdings, the company that brought the event to D.C., hid his inner-daredevil behind blue-tinted glasses and gave the course a spin.

He had little to lose: He was driving one of the cars lent to the event by Cadillac, the sponsor, an Escalade EXT so new that it still had tags on its creamy leather seats.

"It's as if you're in a computer game, but it's for real!" said Lencheski, before zooming toward a hairpin turn. In the race, he said, "They'll go twice as fast."

Lencheski is far more cautious when describing average Le Mans fans, whom he doesn't want confused with the Southern-fried NASCAR stereotype.

"There's an element of inside-the-Beltway to it," he said. "This sort of racing has a cosmopolitan nature to it - a highly intelligent, affluent demographic."

Grand Prix organizers hope the race catches on partly as a corporate schmooze event. Washington's elite can mingle with executives in luxury boxes that, organizers say, cost such companies as Northrop Grumman, Cadillac, Miller Brewing Co., Pepsi and Continental Airlines between $10,000 and $50,000.

The attraction of Le Mans racing, organizers say, is the performance of the sports cars; it is not known for fiery crashes. The Le Mans features Cadillacs, Audis and other sports cars with top-flight performance technology that one day could be available in car showrooms.

Organizers are wooing wealthy Washingtonians, who usually don't flock to racing hotbeds in Dover, Del., and Pocono, Pa., by trying to sound high-brow. In one radio spot, an announcer pronounces "Grand Prix" in a haughty French accent.

Even so, this is not a wine-and-cheese party. Fans can whoop it up on monster truck rides or watch a celebrity car race featuring such TV actors as William Shatner of Star Trek and Melissa Joan Hart from Sabrina: The Teenage Witch. Rap star Coolio will also attend, though he wonders why the event is taking place in D.C.

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