By Jeff Mattoon
It was “the disaster that almost was.” Only six weeks before the fifth Grand Prix of Denver, featuring the Champ Car World Series (which includes the world famous Long Beach Grand Prix), Centennial-based Centrix Financial pulled their title sponsorship of the Denver event, and left GPD staffers scrambling to save the show.
At GPD’s darkest hour, discussions included the possibility of canceling the race, which no doubt would have had a notable impact on metro Denver’s economy and the psyche of Colorado race fans. Fortunately, that sort of talk didn’t last long. While race officials won’t release actual attendance figures, all indicators point to another successful three-day event.
Trouble with Centrix sponsorship wasn’t a complete surprise. Rob Johnson, GPD general manager, knew back in March that Centrix was financially on shaky ground.
“They really thought they were going to pull out of it. They had a plan to move forward, but it just didn’t happen. They were upfront with me, and I always knew they had a strategy for moving forward. They just couldn’t make it happen,” Johnson said.
Centrix Financial, one of the leaders in sub-prime automobile lending, specializes in partnerships primarily with credit unions. Having underwritten 250,000 loans totaling nearly $4 billion since 1998, it was a rising star of the industry, but for more than a year, the company has had to fight one serious battle after another.
It all started when the National Credit Union Administration abruptly disallowed credit unions whose loans are guaranteed by NCUA from utilizing third-party providers for higher risk loans—providers like Centrix.
It didn’t take long for the ruling to wield its impact on the growing Centennial company. Late in 2005, Centrix laid off 250 employees. In June, after numerous unsuccessful appeals to the NCUA, Centrix was forced to lay off 300 more employees. Centrix management consolidated departments and scrambled to examine other markets.
Centrix founded a lucrative partnership with BarNone, a highly marketed sub-prime lending service, represented in television commercials by the famous dog hand puppet.
It’s a good marriage for the two companies. BarNone wasn’t able to accept applications from certain parts of the country. That has now changed, with the association with Centrix.
“We anticipate that the partnership with BarNone will drive a significant amount of new business to the Centrix program,” said Robert E. Sutton, Centrix Financial’s chairman and CEO.
Sutton, motorsports fancier and financer, hopes to bring health to his ailing company and pursue future racing partnerships.
Centrix is also dealing with numerous lawsuits filed by claimants who invested in the company early on and now believe they should have a bigger piece of that multibillion-dollar pie.
In addition to the Grand Prix of Denver, Centrix has served as sponsor for the entire Champ Car World Series. It’s the official auto lender for NASCAR, numerous teams and other racing series, which include the Baja 1000.
It’s somewhat ironic that Centrix would need to bail out as sponsor for GPD. In 2003, Centrix served as the event savior, stepping forward to assume title sponsorship from Shell Oil Company. Shell backed out when GPD owner Dover Motorsports sold its interest to Champ Car. The following year, Centrix really stepped up, purchasing controlling interest in GPD, with Champ Car as partner. Local interest in GPD is still owned by Centrix Financial Grand Prix of Denver, LLC, headed up by Bob Sutton. So while Centrix and Sutton were ostensible no-shows at the event, they benefit from a successful race weekend.
Along with the Champ Car World Series, Bridgestone Tire Company is race savior for GPD this year. It didn’t take much to convince the tire maker to provide the much needed support. Bridgestone is no stranger to the series. Bridgestone and Ford are the title sponsors and tire providers to the Champ Car World Series.
GPD’s Johnson likes the way Bridgestone has participated. The corporation didn’t just throw money at the event. It actually provided needed clout.
“When Centrix pulled out six weeks before the event, there were two ways to go,” he said. “You either find someone really quickly and just throw them on there, or you look for someone who really wants to partner with you. That’s what we decided.
“Bridgestone stepped up this year with a much more comprehensive package. They have a lot of customers here, and a lot of signage. They’ve helped us market the event to a lot of dealers around town. They’re the type of partner we’re looking for. It may not be perfect this year, but I’d rather have a partnership with the title sponsor, rather than just somebody’s name,” says Johnson.
To put the Centrix pullout in perspective, last-minute replacements Bridgestone, Red Bull, Jack Daniels, Hyatt and Cingular absorbed a lot of what Centrix provided financially, but the void wasn’t completely filled. Numerous behind-the-scenes office jobs once filled by Centrix staffers had to be filled by someone else—mostly Champ Car personnel.
Johnson likens the whole event to a circus.
“We provide the tent and the rings and the race people come in and use that tent to put on their show,” he said.
Johnson, with a background in sports marketing, is no stranger to motorsports curveballs. In 2005, the one-time president of the Pikes Peak International Raceway, located south of Colorado Springs, learned from Indy Racing League officials and the press that his racetrack and job of seven years would soon become extinct. He takes it all in stride.
“I had no idea that PPIR would be closed. We had an issue with the IRL over what we thought was a bad (race) date. It was a crummy date, because it was the week after the Grand Prix of Denver. We told the IRL if they didn’t move the date, we wouldn’t run the race. We didn’t think that would happen or that the track would be shut down. We didn’t know all that was going on behind the scenes with the new buyer,” remembers Johnson.
Another dark cloud looms for GPD and all Champ Car and IRL race cities. This year, owners of both racing concerns are seriously considering the possibility of reunifying the two estranged racing leagues. If a merger occurs, a necessary culling of races and race cities will be inevitable. Johnson has a “wait and see” attitude, but Kevin Kalkoven, a Champ Car World Series owner, is optimistic about Denver’s Grand Prix survival probability should the two strike a deal.
“The Grand Prix of Denver has continued to meet and beat our expectations for a festival atmosphere and a splendid weekend of racing. I’m confident that reunification, should it occur, will find Denver on the schedule,” says Kalkoven.
Continued big-time racing in Denver has a varied impact on different people. For Dave Reuter, it’s a homecoming, and for Pat DuBois, it’s a new start at life.
Dave Reuter, front-end mechanic and wheel-changer for the Sebastian Bourdais-driven McDonald’s #1 car, graduated in 1990 from Rocky Mountain High School in Fort Collins. He went on to the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute in Arizona, and after graduating, found himself immersed in the exciting world of motocross racing.
While traveling the world with motocross, a rider mentioned to Reuter that his uncle knew a race engineer for Champ Car. He delivered his resume at a 2000 race in Houston and was hired a couple of months later.
“As long as you’re determined enough and willing to earn it, you can go from anywhere and work your way to the top levels, as long as you set your mind to it,” Reuter offers.
“I really enjoy coming back to Colorado to see family and friends, it’s a great life,” he added.
Patrick DuBois also wants to be involved in racing, but he followed a less direct path.
After earning a history degree from Southern Illinois University in 1992, he moved to Denver and earned an MBA/JD. He worked as a technology consultant, and led an active lifestyle. But his world was rocked in 2003, when his knee gave out in a hockey game.
After eight surgeries, not all successful, he was left with nerve damage and a lot of rehabilitation ahead.
“After surgery, I was almost bedridden. I was in a wheelchair for two months and on crutches for all of 2004. I wasn’t as active as I could’ve been, and I used to sit in the dark for long periods of time, staring at the wall. My wife said I was depressed and that I needed something to do,” remembers DuBois.
His wife bought him a radio-controlled car and that turned out to be just what he needed. DuBois started racing his car, and was doing well when last year’s Grand Prix of Denver came to town.
While at the races, DuBois visited a booth sponsored by the Sports Car Club of America, which sanctions all levels of amateur and professional racing nationwide. With the goal of someday being able to race a real race car, DuBois has the motivation to work for a speedy recovery. At this year’s GPD he volunteered to be a corner marshal.
“I may never be able to race, but it gives me something to look forward to. There’s always something exciting going on,” says DuBois.
Some may look at auto racing as simply a diversion from reality, and for some, it surely is. But make no mistake; this isn’t some fly-by-night operation. It’s the Big Top, the “Really Big Show.” When the circus comes to town, it attracts many who want to run away to join the show. It also brings those who want to run away from the show. This event is no different.