The Michigan Mile was supposed to be a beginning of a racing tradition for enthusiasts here in the mitten. A year after the first race, however, it's fallen apart amidst allegations of theft, miscommunication and bad business. Here's what we know so far.
Alex Conley, an omnipresent figure in the local enthusiast scene who has also photographed for Jalopnik in the past, is the organizer of The Michigan Mile, where drivers are invited to an airfield in Battle Creek to race in three categories: Standard automobiles, a "class 2" rating up to 190 mph and a "class 1" rating with automobiles that can crack 190 mph.
Last year's event mostly went smoothly, save for when a driver in a Corvette crashed into a Jeep while doing a donut. Participants were charged an entry fee, the expenses going toward using the Kellogg Airport for the day's events. Because the event takes place on an airstrip, it must be cleared with the Federal Aviation Administration.
But this year, officials at the airport and the Battle Creek Field of Flight, an annual airshow that the Mile was to run in conjunction with, cancelled the Mile about a month before it was to take place on Independence Day weekend. The complaints were brought public in a story that aired on West Michigan's Fox affiliate. And here's where it gets murky.
Officials at the airport told Fox 17 that Conley failed to pay them back for expenses from the first event last year. "He kept promising me that he was going to send me money. Kept promising, never got the money," Barb Haluszka, executive director of the Field of Flight event, told the TV station.
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We talked to Haluszka more about last year's events and how this year's event fell apart. She opened her conversation with "I think he's a crook."
We also asked Conley what happened. "The organizer is quite simply the most difficult person in the world to work with," he writes in a text message before sending along a few documents.
Conley says last year's event was fully funded with funds up front before the event began, but received an invoice after the event detailing final charges. After paying the airshow with funds collected from drivers, there was still a $3,500 balance for "miscellaneous charges," Conley says. (Invoices Conley forwarded over show it was for a $3,000 space rental, $200 for golf-cart rentals and 20 additional admissions passes valued at $10 each.)
That $3,500 is the bone of contention between Conley and the airshow organizers. Haluszka tells us that the amount owed is actually $4,500.
We asked Conley about the debt. First, he says that because the entry fee for last year was so low, they were barely able to break even to pay airshow organizers their fee.
When Haluszka and Conley sat down last fall to plan for this year's event, Haluszka says she was willing to overlook the Corvette-Jeep crash and the non-payment of the balance if Conley and another organizer, Chris "Chevy" Chavez, came up with some money up front.
"Obviously the first time doing it, I'll give someone the benefit of the doubt," Haluszka says. "I said, 'we'll give you another chance at this, but you have to pay the $4,500 that you owe us, and we'll have to set up a prepayment for 2014.'"
Haluszka says she discounted booth rentals and other expenses for the first event, but was concerned that the event didn't have insurance for drivers. For this year, Haluszka requested full prices, coverage for drivers and for Conley to promote the accompanying air show.
When the Jeep-Corvette crash happened, Haluszka says, the Jeep was totaled and the Corvette driver had to be taken to the emergency room. Since the Michigan Mile was not covered — also putting the air show and the airport at risk of a lawsuit, Haluszka says — it was classified as an accident between the two cars involved.
Haluszka says Conley never paid up. Conley says he was waiting for the aforementioned FAA approval, where it gets even murkier.
Conley wrote on his Motokure blog that he could not begin to raise sponsorship money for this year's Michigan Mile until the FAA had formally greenlit the event to take place on the Battle Creek airstrip. The only way he would have known if the FAA had given the OK is through contact with the airshow organizers, whom he says was not forthcoming about the approval.
Our plan of action and the original outline for the event was approved by the FAA, which was necessary to shut down the desired runway. If any tangible problems existed in regards to our planning and operation of the event, it should have been brought to our attention before this approval.
We were told that his approval happned in April. But, when we got a hold of the offical documentation. It was revealed that the FAA didn't approve our event till June.
I can only speculate as to why we were clearly lied to in regards to this. Battle Creek knows that we don't approach sponsors until we have some level of confirmation by the FAA that the event is approved. We just consider this as an example of the reckless disregard for our concerns and our customers. If the FAA denied us after securing large sponsors, this could have been a bigger mess.
Conley wrote as much in a press release sent out this week:
What we disagree is on the way that information has been presented. As noted in the email above, we were told that we are approved come April. 1st. That gives us less than 3 months to contact sponsors and get people on board. We expressed this situation to BCB and that we on had a 1/3rd of the time to actually secure these sponsors as i had stated. But, we managed to secure a few and produce enough for a good faith downpayment of a $1000 for our upcoming meeting as we waited for our sponsor checks to come in. But, we received a cancelation email days before our final meeting, which was some 4 weeks prior to the event (our agreed deadline) . We feel that this was due more over hurt feelings rather to any changes in how we operated our business
Haluszka says that the FAA indeed has to clear an event in advance; if an emergency landing needs to happen, for example, the FAA has to know in advance that the airport is in use and assure that staff is ready for any unforeseen circumstances happen on the day of any event going on.
"There's all kind of things we had to put in our contingency plan," Haluszka says. She says she notified Conley in March that the FAA had given approval for both the Michigan Mile, and even that took some arm-twisting.
"To shut down the airport for an airshow, they can justify because it's aviation-oriented," she says. "But to have cars on an airstrip, of which the federal government operates, you have to be able to sell this."
But there was still the money owed, Haluszka says. "Waiting for the FAA to say it's a go is not at all part of the agreement."
We asked Conley how he planned to pay back the balance from the year before, and he maintains that it couldn't happen until he knew for sure if the FAA had given approval for the event. He says the arrangement with Haluszka to pay back the amount wouldn't come into play until then, but "Battle Creek cut us off 20 days before our due date for payment," he says. "They never gave us our full window of time to pay. See, we let them know that we can't raise money till we have an event. And we don't officially have an event till the FAA says so."
Haluszka maintains that the money had always been owed immediately after last year's event and that Conley was rarely in contact with her over the months following. "He put on his website that he was immediately looking for drivers. He wasn't the least bit concerned about what was going on on this end."
Haluszka informed Conley that he hadn't done his job of promoting the air show, even though the air show's marketing consistently mentioned The Michigan Mile. With no payment from the year before, "Eight weeks out from the event, I told him, 'we're removing The Michigan Mile from our advertising. And you know what he told me? 'That's fine, you can remove it, it doesn't do us any good.'" It was around this time when drivers had already begun paying for the event, and also when Haluszka says Conley missed a key planning meeting to discuss the event going forward.
Five weeks prior to the event date, Haluszka officially pulled the plug.
This brings us to said drivers. When Conley informed registrants that the event was canceled before the 4th of July, a Facebook page titled "The Michigan Mile is a SCAM" — which alleges everything from a personal bankruptcy on Conley's behalf to the loss of a day job at Roush — quickly went up. On the page, some potential drivers said they had begun registering back in March, before the tumultuous back-and-forth between Conley and the airshow organizers and (maybe) the FAA.
The earliest exchange — and there's no way for us to verify if all of what's been said is true — alleges that Conley deleted his Facebook account and deleted messages posted to the group. (There is one screenshot, however, of Conley pondering a purchase of a $14,000 Pontiac GTO.)
Throughout the group's exchanges, beginning in early July, Conley has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing and says he cannot refund the money because of PayPal's rules. On his blog, Motokure:
The biggest contention of this whole situation is based around our refund policy. This policy was enacted to reduce our liability in this very situation. The event was cancled outside of our control. For our concerens, it really does not matter the reason for an unplanned cancelation. The resulting effect would be the same.
We run this event on a 0-0 margin. Meaning that all the funds we receive are put forward to effectivly market the event, plan the event and run the event. In the 11 month off season, people are working to make the event as large as possible. We retain no surplus, we dont have any investors or outstanding loans.
Our intake of funds is directly related to what we can and cannot do as an orginization. This simply leaves no funds set aside for refunding racers in the event of an unplanned cancelation. This is also the single greatest motivatior for us to never willingly cancel our own event.
This is the situation for many other such Mile events and we developed this policy based on researching other such disclaimers and race policies.
All racers must electronically sign and verify that they have read the below policy in full before they are allowed to make a race pass purchase.
"By agreeing, you agree to all terms and conditions of The Michigan Mile as follows. All fees and funds are final and not refundable. Rain or Shine. All efforts to accommodate participants in these unlikely events will be made as quickly as possible. Capital investments are made well before any show takes place and thus full reimbursement is not always an option."
If anyone wishes to make a dispute in regards to our policy, we refer you to Paypal. They handled all of the transactions in regards to our event.
Conley says he and others are working to create an alternative event, but it hasn't stopped upset drivers. I asked Conley where exactly were the funds that drivers paid.
"The funds we raised for this years event basically go toward all of the marketing and planning over the 12 months in between events. The money we expected and the money we raised specifically to pay [B]attle [C]reek was not accepted after they shut us down," he texted.
Haluszka has been inundated with calls from drivers since the event was canceled. "I told them 'Look guys I'm sorry, but due to logistical issues' — and logistical issues can stand for a lot of things — 'we had to cancel the event with Alex.""
But she adds, "He had everything to do with the cancellation of it. I refuse to get into he-said she-said. Alex has got issues. That's all I'm going to say."
In its investigation, the Better Business Bureau reports that Conley appears to have raised more than $14,000 for the event. The organization also reports that Conley has not responded to them. He has, however, restored his Facebook account.
Photo via The Michigan Mile
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