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Indoor auto race track garaged indefinitely

Friday, December 14, 2001

By Mark Belko, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Plans for a $400 million world's first indoor race track, to be built at Pittsburgh International Airport, are in limbo because of the inability of the developer to finalize financing for the ambitious project.

Allegheny County Chief Executive Jim Roddey said yesterday the track has fallen victim to a faltering economy and declining sponsorships in the auto racing industry.

"Right now, this is a very difficult market to finance something new and untried. Sponsorships in racing have been dropping off very dramatically," he said.

Roddey made his comments a day after meeting with Bob Brant, vice president of Brant Motorsports, at the county courthouse. Roddey said Brant had been able to secure some of the funding for the project but was still far short of the total needed.

He said he did not know when the project would get back on track.

"I don't think it's anything we're going to see within the next few months," he said.

Brant did not request an extension of his company's exclusive right to develop the property, Roddey said. That right, granted by the Allegheny County Airport Authority, will expire at the end of the year.

At that point, the authority, which does not plan to renew Brant's right, will be free to negotiate with others to develop the 145 acres, which sit on a bluff overlooking the airport.

Roddey said the plan lost some momentum with the death of Bob Brant's brother, Ted, in June 2000 and then stalled altogether because of the economic slowdown caused in part by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The project also was sidetracked for a time because of bureaucratic delays in getting federal approvals for the environmental assessment.

"Unfortunately, the times caught up with them," Roddey said.

Bob Brant declined to comment before his meeting with Roddey. But in a prepared statement he issued yesterday, he said he still was committed to making the track a reality.

"We're hopeful that an adequate financing package can be assembled that would allow us to move forward with the county," he said. "We at Brant Motorsports are committed to seeing that this project reaches victory lane."

Roddey said another problem is the cost of the project has ballooned to nearly $400 million, or almost $100 million more than it was when it was announced in April 1999.

Brant has promised to finance the race track almost exclusively through private dollars. It has not asked the county for any direct financial help, although it has sought tax increment financing for infrastructure improvements.

Roddey said the county is still willing to work with Brant to complete the project. But he added the county also would entertain offers from others interested in developing the land.

"I'm disappointed," he said of the stalled project. "That location is a location that should be attractive to any number of different kind of businesses. Hopefully, they will get their financing and have a race track or we will have another facility there that creates jobs and generates revenue."

The proposed track was unveiled with great fanfare by former county Commissioners Bob Cranmer and Mike Dawida, who was running for county executive, in 1999. The facility, which would be the first of its kind in the world, would feature a 1-mile oval track with 850-foot straightaways.

It would seat 60,000 people and use a sophisticated air flow system to remove exhaust. Soundproofing would deaden the noise from the race cars. Brant had hoped to attract hugely popular NASCAR racing to the facility and use it for other forms of racing.

He also was planning to hold other events there, including boat shows, wrestling matches, conventions, aircraft exhibitions, circuses and tractor pulls. There were plans to build ramps directly from the airfield to the facility.

In retrospect, the 1999 announcement probably was premature, Roddey said.

"It was a great idea but it was highly speculative. It was premature to make it sound like a done deal," he said.

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