Thursday, October 19, 2000
It''s hard not to notice that last Sunday at Laguna Seca, a couple of Panoz Le Mans Cars and two Dodge Vipers replayed a corporate drama whose curtain fell just weeks ago. In Sunday''s American Le Mans Series race, the two cars sponsored by the Atlanta-based Panoz Motor Sports Group broke away early and took the lead. Panoz seemed destined for glory until one of its cars expired from exhaust trouble and the other spun off the track. The two Vipers, GTS cars racing in the Le Mans class, finished in the top 10, beating a dozen Porsches as well as a couple of Le Mans cars in the process.
For Donald Panoz, the pharmaceuticals magnate who owns the race car company and its driving schools, the symbolism must have stung. The original drama had unfolded far from the ringing air and pressing heat of Laguna Seca, in the cooler, less thrilling theater of contractual awards. But the story line followed the same arc: Panoz got out front early in the competition, lost its lead, and wound up trumped by the Viper insignia--passed on the inside, you might even say.
When the racing school concession at Laguna Seca came up for bid in the spring, as it does every five years, the Monterey County Parks Department sent out an RFP, or request for proposal, to see which racing school would offer the best deal. Two companies applied: Skip Barber, whose students at Laguna Seca and three other locations practice their budding skills in Dodge Vipers; and Panoz, a 10-year-old sports car manufacturing company with schools in Atlanta and Florida. With the proposals due by May 31, representatives from both schools appeared before a four-person committee in early June to make presentations. And they were off.
According to committee member and Parks Commissioner Joseph Hertlein, it was no contest.
"In reality, the oral interview was so lopsided in favor of Mr. Panoz that we rightly could have put down 100 points for him and zero for Mr. Barber," Hertlein says, citing the Panoz team''s organization and professionalism.
Hertlein was also impressed that the Panoz proposal included perks to the county: a $100,000 grant to the Sports Car Association of Monterey Peninsula (SCRAMP), earmarked toward finding money for $30 million in improvements to Laguna Seca; five automobiles for the parks department; and defensive driver training for county employees and top high school students.
Barber admits he delivered a less-than-stellar performance that lacked any of the extras promised by Panoz. "I did a terrible job in the interview," he concedes. "But I have trouble with that being more important than five years of doing the job right."
In this year''s RFP, however, the county had added a question about the concessionaire''s "willingness to support local non-race and community activities." It is this question--answered by Panoz with the above-mentioned laundry list--that tipped the balance in Panoz'' favor. Barber provided nothing comparable.
In the end, the committee--composed of Hertlein, tax collector Lou Solton, Convention and Visitors Bureau CEO Burke Pease and Parks Director John Pinio--unanimously recommended Panoz to the Board of Supervisors. The Board was set to consider the recommendation on Oct. 3.
In the interim, Barber kicked his efforts into high gear. He hired the high-powered Armanasco Public Relations firm to solicit support from local businesses. Letters and faxes from 400 Skip Barber Racing School graduates poured into the supervisors'' offices. By the time the October supervisors'' meeting rolled around, the Armanasco machine had enlisted 36 people to speak on behalf of Skip Barber (Panoz had three speakers). They filed into the chambers, many wearing buttons proclaiming their support for Barber.
The eleventh-hour blitz caught the Panoz camp by surprise. Myron Etienne, attorney for Panoz, was incensed.
"In more than 35 years of appearing before this board on some highly controversial matters, I have never seen attempts to influence the outcome of an issue reach the proportion that I have seen here today," he fumed in his statement to the board.
That was the day''s second display of spleen. Before the meeting even began, an irate Supervisor Judy Pennycook addressed the assembly saying she''d caught wind of rumors that the committee''s choice was based on "kickbacks" and that the RFP wasn''t fair.
"To cast aspersions, to denigrate in any way, shape or form any person on that [committee] or the process itself is reprehensible," she scolded, "and I am really irritated, and whoever started it should be ashamed of themselves."
Barber vehemently denies having started rumors about "kickbacks," but he does say that in light of his fiscal performance, there was confusion among his supporters as to why he might be jilted. The dreaded new fifth element of the RFP received the blame. What was needed, the Barber camp implied, was a return to the old-fashioned dollars-and-sense RFP. As attorney Tony Lombardo, representing Skip Barber, said at the meeting, "Skip Barber did not offer five vehicles to the parks department; he did not offer 30 hours of driver training. What he offers is $9 1/2 million of economic proven activity to this county."
Indeed, the question about the appropriateness of Panoz'' proposed gifts--the $100,000 to SCRAMP, the $150,000 worth of automobiles--is not easily dismissed. Says Dave Potter, who voted to retain Skip Barber, "RFPs are almost always about objective performance. I have never seen anything in an RFP that would be so open to subjective interpretation."
But, queries Hertlein, what else is an RFP for, other than to get the best possible deal for the county? "Obviously the concessionaire would like to get it for nothing," he says. "But it doesn''t work that way. To me it was perfectly reasonable that the county should ask, ''What''s in it for us?''"
Furthermore, he says of the PR campaign, "It really wasn''t fair. Mr. Barber must''ve spent a small fortune to do the campaign he did."
But that''s politics, counters Barber. "Anyone''s welcome to lobby," he points out.
Panoz wasn''t, according to Panoz. In his statement to the board, Donald Panoz said, "After the presentation I asked, ''Is it appropriate for me to come to Monterey and to visit other county administrators or the Board of Supervisors?'' I was told...that personal contact with people in the county or the Board of Supervisors would be discouraged."
In the end, Potter, along with supervisors Calcagno, Salinas and Johnsen, voted to retain Skip Barber as the driving school operator.
Barber maintains that justice was done. "At Sebring Raceway we do well over $3 million worth of business a year, and Panoz does $88,000," he says. "It''s not rocket science, I think, to figure out what that means to Laguna."
But that number was taken from 1999, the year Panoz launched its racing school at Sebring, a Panoz-owned track. "We only operated for two months last year," says Jeff Purner, director of Panoz Racing Schools. The two schools have coexisted peaceably enough until now, with Panoz respecting Barber''s turf, but, says Purner, "That''s about to change. In five years there will be no Skip Barber at Sebring. So in five years we''ll be doing $3 million a year, and Skip Barber will be doing nothing."
Which suggests that the plot is about to thicken elsewhere, and that Viper v. Panoz: The Sequel is bound to make an appearance here again someday.
"Oh yeah," says Purner. "We''ll be back in five years."