By Josh Farmer, IndyCar Reporter
Ever want a motor race featuring the best of the best? On top of that, a $10,000,000 purse to go with it? And in Hawaii to boot? All sounds good right?
That was the premise of the Hawaiian Super Prix, one of many Indy car races that have never happened.
The race was the idea of one Dick Rutherford, who had been trying to bring a major motor racing event to the state of Hawaii for several years with the concept being an all-star event bringing drivers from multiple racing platforms.
After a race around Aloha Stadium fell through in 1994, Rutherford shifted his focus to the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART). The race would feature a massive $10 million purse with the winner taking $5,000,000. The pole sitter would also get an unheard of $250,000 prize.
Rutherford planned to pay for the race with ticket sales as well as airing the race on pay per view.
In late 1998, Rutherford approached CART CEO Andrew Craig to discuss the idea. Craig recalls feeling skeptical about the idea right from the get go.
“He presented this idea and I thought it was not properly thought through,” he said. “Having talked to him about this idea for about 20 minutes to a half hour and having said we were not interested he then said, he then said ‘How about a race in Nassau then?’, I then said ‘Oh boy this guy’s a flake.’ That was the end of that conversation.”
With Craig initially not in favor, Rutherford lobbied a number of team owners and the idea began to gain momentum with a few members on the CART board of directors supporting the idea. While Craig had his reservations, the board members supporting the idea argued that even if the race fell through, CART would be financially secure because of an insurance policy.
Finances were not the only concern for Craig as he felt that the unexpected extra race would increase cost for the four engine manufacturers in the series – Ford, Toyota, Honda and Mercedes-Benz.
The race and approved unanimously and was bonded to the tune of $30 million by CNB Capital and the sanctioning fee was insured by Frontier Insurance.
Even with financial insurance, Craig still had his doubts about the race but went along with the board’s unanimous agreement to hold the race. With that, the formal announcement of the Hawaiian Super Prix was made on February 25, 1999 on Waikiki Beach.
The race was set to take place on November 13, 1999, less than two weeks after the season-ending Marlboro 500 at California (now Auto Club) Speedway. It was set to be an All-Star Event with 16 cars, with the top 12 in CART points with 4 entries being at the promoter’s discretion.
The course was still to be determined, but it was eventually solidified to be laid out as a 1.8-mile 10-turn airport circuit located at the Kalaeloa Airport located 22.5 miles away from Honolulu.
The was to have a unique format that featured two 60-minute heats with a points system that would determine an overall winner. It also featured a knockout qualifying system similar to what the Verizon IndyCar Series would adopt several years later.
A Super-Bowl esque halftime show would fill the time in between the two races.
The race was still far from becoming a reality. Rutherford’s super high purse already meant that there was a lot to pay out aside from operation costs. With less than 10 months until the race, it was a race against time in order to find sponsorship to pay for the race.
Most of the sponsorship came from local companies, such as AAA Hawaii while some were strictly business to business deals, one coming from the Hawai Chevrolet Dealers. They signed on to be the official car of the Super Prix late in September in exchange for providing safety vehicles for the race.
The Sheraton Hawaii chain had a similar deal, giving free rooms in exchange for advertising.
CART at the time had a title sponsorship from FedEx and many large companies such as Miller, Budweiser, Target and Valvoline to name a few were involved in the sport. Why did none of them jump on board to support this Super-Bowl-like event?
The answer lies in one of the simple rules of advertising – timing. Corporate sponsorship dollars are normally budgeted a year in advance, which was not within the Super Prix’s timeframe.
The early delays in promotion and track setup did not sit well with Craig, whose skepticism did not subside.
“We have a signed contract and the insurance policy is in place but Rutherford’s cost estimates, sponsorship ambitions, funding are completely wrong.
After a few months of the race’s announcement, Craig’s skepticism was soon realized as little action happened across the pacific.
Skepticism in the CART media center grew almost immediately following the announcement. For starters, Rutherford did not have an upstanding track record in the motorsports industry. His only claim to fame was running the American IndyCar Series, from 1986-87.
At the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, Rutherford and his team held a press conference during the weekend’s activities. When asked about how the pay-per-view sales were going, Rutherford was unable to provide a clear answer.
Heading into the summer, some activity on and off the track ramped up as Mario Andretti signed on as a paid spokesman for the race and made some public appearances. Parts of the airport runways were paved and in June PacWest Racing driver Mauricio Gugelmin took some laps on the course at speed.
With a track in place, the drama was far from over. A restructuring within the organization saw Rutherford removed from his role as CEO and replaced by Phil Heard, who had promoted the Vancouver Grand Prix throughout its existence.
Heard had a bit more of a promising aura than Rutherford, but the ship was sinking all too fast.
Showtime bailed as the television carrier in late September, thus making any money that would come through via pay-per-view a moot point. Heard along with sportscar racing mogul Don Panoz managed to draw together an 11th hour deal with Speedvision (eventually Speed Channel) to show the race. CART races were carried by ABC/ESPN at the time, but they could not show the super prix due to existing scheduling conflicts with college football.
The Showtime fallout was just the icing on the cake as the organization was running out of money to pay the purse and construct the course.
Ticket sales were not doing well either, with only roughly 20,000 seats being sold when the promoter initially said that the race would draw over 100,000 people.
In a last minute bailout attempt in October, HSP officials sought out a high-interest loan of $15 million dollars to pull the race off. They also sought a new deal with CART which cut the purse down to $8 million and removing the 4 wild-card entries.
In addition to helping the Speedvision deal move along, Panoz personally agreed to front the money to the organizers. That hope was dashed when Panoz’s involvement was leaked by the San Diego Union.
All the while Craig, having been doubtful about the Super Prix from the beginning, was sitting watching the whole thing unfold. Even though the race looked doubtful, CART was locked into an agreement with the promoter’s insurance policy.
“We are actually in the hole to be frank because we’ve got this insurance policy,” Craig recalls. “These things are pretty flaky but on the other hand, it exists. I can’t remember the exact conditions, but we couldn’t cancel the race. It had to get to a certain point in time before we could say no. Even though it was clear to me quite early on, Rutherford wasn’t going to make it happen, I couldn’t stop it without invalidating the insurance policy.”
Despite being pessimistic about the event, Craig did not want CART to suffer and agreed to help out the organizers by agreeing to cut the purse, but it was the most that he could do at that point. He was not prepared to step up and promote the race himself due to its potential to lose money.
“It was something that was not in the plan,” he said. “We were a public company. There was certain unprofitability, we had no interest on taking on something that would lose money.”
Unable to secure the $15,000,000 loan, the drama came to an end on October 19, when the race was officially cancelled.
Looking back on the mess, Craig feels that possibly the best thing that could have been done in hindsight was to not run the race to begin with and willingly accepted the blame for the event.
“I was the CEO, I allowed it to happen, I take full responsibility,” he said. “Notwithstanding the fact I had two or three people on the board that were very keen to do this, but I can’t judge what their motivations were.”
Craig did however note that the race could have been a positive thing for CART had it gone off as planned, but ultimately it was the promoter’s incompetence that allowed it to not happen.
“Putting aside the economics, the general idea was ok. On a very basic concept level, it had some attractions definitely. The business model didn’t make sense and Rutherford didn’t have the ability to put it together.”