Tag Archives: Sports

CIty Hall — The Deep End


The Deep End

He can’t say why or how, but Mayor Langford believes that an equestrian center and an Olympic-size swimming arena will revitalize the crime-ridden and economically depressed Five Points West area.

April 17, 2008
Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford’s mastery at communication often seems to hypnotize many members of the City Council. At the April 8 council meeting, even Councilor Joel Montgomery—who often resists freewheeling spending—was drinking Langford’s Kool-Aid. Montgomery and five other councilors supported allotting $48 million for the mayor’s proposed upgrade to Fair Park and the surrounding Five Points West district—which Langford says will cost a total of $90 million.(Councilor Roderick Royal voted against the proposal, Councilor Abbott abstained, Councilor Bell was absent.)Predictably, Councilor Valerie Abbott remained suspicious of Langford’s economic notions. “I’m in favor of this concept. However, you know me. I’m always waiting for those little details,” admitted Abbott. “And in this case, I just want to get to the bottom line. I would like to approve money to develop a plan today, but not necessarily to allocate all the money, because at this point I do not know exactly what the money will go for.” Langford’s redevelopment plan for Five Points West includes an Olympic-size swimming arena [natatorium], equestrian facilities, and an indoor track at Fair Park. Several businesses, including hotels and retailers, are scheduled to open in the immediate vicinity as part of the area’s economic revitalization. The bulk of the funds for this project will come, at least initially, from funds raised by the increase in business license fees approved by the council three months ago. Though at the time those funds were earmarked for construction of a domed stadium. According to Langford, monies would not be due until 18 months after construction on a domed stadium had begun. Until then, according to Langford’s plan, funds generated by the license fee increase will be the primary funding source for the Fair Park plan. Other funding for the revitalization project will come from a one-cent sales tax previously approved by the council for economic redevelopment, as well as money previously approved for Fair Park but never spent.

Regarding the development’s commercial versus its sports/athletic components, Abbott favors the latter, fearful that current Five Points West businesses might not be able to compete with new businesses. “I would like to see a redevelopment plan and a legal agreement, something we can sink our teeth into,” the councilor said as she also inquired about an ongoing operational funding source for Fair Park. Abbott also wants to know what the economic impact would be. That kind of information is often available whenever city economic development is proposed, but in this instance no economic impact study has been undertaken.

When Councilor Carol Duncan simply asked about the cost of the natatorium (or “swimming pool,” as Council President Carole Smitherman refers to the facility), Langford said the pool would cost about $12 million. “I’m not going to get emotional about any of this anymore. This is too long coming in this city,” said the mayor with obvious disgust. “Without the retail component out there, all we’ve done is build another stadium. You’re going to have to have the retail component in order to be sure that it is maintained. This area has so longly needed something out there. Let’s don’t piecemeal it. If you’re going to vote it, vote it . . . If the Council decides today that you don’t want to do it, that’s fine. I will not bring it back.”

Councilor Roderick Royal wanted to delay the item until after the council receives the 2009 budget in two months. “Since we are contemplating using business license fees—the money that we said to our taxpayers that we were going to use for the dome—the question is: how do you replace this money? And will that affect our ability whenever we do decide, or can build a large facility?”

“We must have about 17 different projects going on in this city,” Royal continued. “Now, I’m not a very smart guy but I will say this: we may need to stop and look at and evaluate how far we’re come. And whether or not any of those projects have really moved. Rather than just continuing to promise out and promise out. I don’t think that’s good fiscal management.” Royal proposed that the council “wait until we get the budget in hand so we can assess our fiscal health for next year and perhaps the following year. And so that we can also look at the evaluation of the 15 or 16 other projects that have been proposed and the Council, either tacitly or formally, has approved.”

Langford denied that money for the domed stadium is going to be used for Fair Park improvements. “The minute they let bids on this stadium, payments will become due 12 to 18 months later,” said Langford. “This city has the fortunate benefit today to be able to use those funds now to do these projects.”

Councilor Montgomery supports Langford’s Fair Park proposal because the money is available. “Councilor Hoyt, this is in your district, and I support you on this. And I don‘t care who likes it,” said Montgomery. “The bottom line is we need economic development in this city. There’s no question about it. That area has been neglected for the longest time. Now you can spin it any way you want to and try to make this look like we’re overspending up here. I don’t vote to overspend taxpayers’ money in this city!”

Council President Smitherman agreed that the council should seize the opportunity to redevelop the Five Points West area. “If we don’t take this money and put it over to the side, then we will never see a new Fair Park,” she said. “It won’t happen. We’ll just take that money and say, ‘Oh, we can go and repair some streets with that.’ Sure. We need it anyhow. Or we can go and we can do some other kind of economic development. And you look up and that money will be squandered all over the place.”

Smitherman believes that the Fair Park development will “spread development over in my area just like it will in everybody else’s area. It may be in Five Points West, but it’s going to have a ripple effect throughout the whole city of Birmingham . . .” She said that Fair Park will show critics that the council can do more than “bring a Wal-Mart.”

Councilor Royal later objected to Smitherman’s lack of adherence to proper parliamentary procedure. “And that means you are out of order again. And you just need to chill out. And that’s what I think,” Royal told the council president. Smitherman replied, “I think I need to use a gavel on you.” Royal again called for “point of order” once more, asking, “Madame President, is that a threat or some kind of assault?” To which Smitherman said, “Nah, I don’t go there, like you.”

• • •
Holy Rollers

At the April 8 Birmingham City Council meeting, Mayor Larry Langford announced that he had ordered 2,000 burlap sacks for use at a citywide prayer meeting to combat crime. Langford displayed one of the burlap bags and said he will ask area ministers to participate in a “sackcloth and ashes” ritual as the Bible commands. “When cities—in the early part of the world’s history—when they had gotten so far from God, begun idol worship and all kinds of crazy stuff that we’re doing even today, that community came to its senses,” explained the mayor. “And the Bible tells us that they [wore] sackcloth and [put] ashes on their faces and they prayed. And God heard their prayer . . . To get this community back on the right track, we need to understand the power of prayer.”

Langford has worn his religion on his sleeve during his first four months as mayor and has led a Bible study group each Friday morning in the city council chambers. “I got a call from someone saying that I need to quit mentioning God’s name so much,” said Langford. “And so I politely asked them what in hell did they want? Because there must be something in hell we want because a lot of us are working real hard to get there . . . If you’ve got a problem with God, take it up with Him.” &


NASCAR is for Squares

NASCAR is for Squares

They’re slow, they’re ugly, and other reasons why NASCAR events are less appealing than Indy racing.

October 06, 2005

Several years ago, NASCAR jumped from its long-time affiliation with ESPN to a lucrative contract with NBC, Fox, and TNT. The result? Stock-car racing trails only NFL football in television ratings. What was once looked down upon as a regional “redneck” sport has blossomed into a predictable weekly episode that’s about as exciting as “The Dukes of Hazzard” without a Confederate flag. Even the SPEED Channel, a 24-hour haven for racing enthusiasts, has shamelessly cashed in on the popularity, featuring Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and other NASCAR stars sitting around a table playing Texas Hold ‘Em. NASCAR fans actually consider such parlor games as viable racing coverage. Frankly, I’m getting more than a little bored with NASCAR racing.

Thanks to an intense relationship with television, NASCAR has captured an astonishingly wide audience. The opportunity for prime-time telecasts prompted the installation of lights at some tracks, ending the previous inconvenience of having races postponed to the following day because of rain delays. This summer’s Pepsi 400, a prime-time Saturday night race held each July Fourth weekend at Daytona Speedway, was delayed for nearly three hours, yet TV crews continued telecasting from the track as a captive nationwide audience waited for the track to dry. The race resumed, ending around 2:00 in the morning. Lights also made it possible for a NASCAR race to be an eight-hour event, creating an adult beverage bonanza for fans already legendary for their beer consumption.

One thing hasn’t changed, however. NASCAR devotees continue to shun “open-wheel” racing—the roofless, fenderless race cars typically seen at the Indianapolis 500—for its former lack of close-quarters racing and undramatic finishes. Ten years ago, Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George decided to take on NASCAR’s stranglehold on the racing market. George formed the Indy Racing League (IRL), featuring open-wheel, open-cockpit automobiles on oval tracks as opposed to traditional winding-road courses. Indianapolis Motor Speedway was one of the few oval tracks that the CART series, NASCAR’s rival before the IRL was formed, raced on. Tony George brought the IRL to the South, sometimes racing on short tracks usually associated with stock cars.

For the first couple of years, the closest thing the IRL had to a racing star was NASCAR’s current “angry driver” poster boy—Tony Stewart. Stewart’s temper tantrums made IRL race days memorable. After winning the IRL championship in 1996, Stewart left for the big money and high profile of NASCAR. Finally, George wrestled the Unsers, Andrettis, and other high-profile drivers from CART into his IRL series, but large attendance and television ratings remained elusive. Oddly, NASCAR can put 120,000 fans in the stands at tracks where the IRL draws crowds of less than 30,000.

To fully grasp just how sluggish NASCAR is, switch channels to an IRL race after watching a few minutes of stock cars. At Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a stock car qualifies around 185 mph, while an IRL car qualifies at around 227 mph. Racing experts have speculated that an IRL car could top 250 mph at a high-banked track like Daytona. Of the 111 races run in the past 10 years in the IRL, 50 have had a margin of less than one second between first and second place. NASCAR is lucky if 10 percent of its events are such close races. Moreover, in terms of actual drama, NASCAR’s notorious door-to-door bashing doesn’t compare to the action when IRL cars get wheel-to-wheel at top speed. Often, open-wheel cars become airborne after only the slightest bump. The crashes are the most spectacular moments in sports. IRL races wrap up in a couple of hours as opposed to NASCAR’s typical four-hour extravaganzas.

NASCAR’s stock cars (above) are a sluggish bunch compared to the Indy Racing League’s open-wheel, open-cockpit racing cars (below). (click for larger version)



The IRL also boasts an international flavor, while NASCAR practically regards guys from California as foreigners. The IRL even has competitive women behind the wheel. Danica Patrick, who drives for a team co-owned by David Letterman, almost won this year’s Indy 500 until low fuel forced her to cut back on speed. The best finish for a NASCAR star in an Indy car was Donnie Allison’s fifth place in the 1970s.


(click for larger version)



NASCAR fans are a stubbornly dedicated bunch. But their arguments that stock cars are more competitive than open-wheelers collapsed once Tony George’s league got a few years under its belt. It’s not likely that the stock-car masses will ever appreciate the fine art of speed. As a friend once told me, comparing open-wheel competition to stock car racing is like comparing boxing to wrestling. &

The Fine Art of Maneuvering


July 14, 2005

he Porsche 250, the mid-season stop in the Grand American Road Racing series, returns to the Barber Motorsports Park July 29 through 31. The race features different classifications of sports cars—futuristic Daytona Prototypes and GT sports cars such as Porsches and Corvettes—competing at the same time over the Barber road course’s 2.3 miles of 16 twisting turns. This year’s race takes place during an off weekend for NASCAR, and rumor has it that a few NASCAR stars may join some of the multi-driver teams for a few laps.


Daytona Prototypes battle for position at the Barber track.




The Barber Motorsports Park boasts one of the most challenging (and lushly gorgeous) road circuits in America. Landing an event as prestigious as a Grand American series race has put Birmingham on the map as a destination point for sports-car enthusiasts—a culture that appreciates the fine art of maneuvering an automobile at breathtaking speeds through a maze of turns, alternately braking before flooring the accelerator. Fans brag that it’s much more of a sweet science than NASCAR’s flat-out but often-boring round–and round predictability. It’s kind of like comparing boxing to wrestling.

The Daytona Prototypes are quite a sight. Resembling a variation on Hollywood’s designs of the Batmobile, the sleek cars are like nothing the average stock car fan has seen. Despite their high-tech appearance, the Prototypes are not above banging fenders as they spin one another off the track, which ought to give local NASCAR fans a thrill. For more information, visit www.barbermotorsports.com or call 1-800-240-2300.