Photo by David KawashimaThe April 17, 1999, race at the Cajon Speedway just outside San Diego started out great for the driver of car No. 29—until the throttle stuck open during a straightaway run. At roughly 90 mph and in front of thousands of racing fans, No. 29 hit the wall at a 45-degree angle.
Driver and owner—and Irvine city councilman—Dave Christensen sustained internal injuries and deep bruising and spent the next two days in the hospital. But two weeks later, he and No. 29—a red-and-white Legends racing car made up to look like a 1937 Ford but powered by a 1,200-cc motorcycle engine—were back racing, this time at a track in Irwindale.
Christensen raced dozens more times that year and even crashed again. He says he eventually sold No. 29 and missed the 2000 racing season entirely, but he insists he'll be back on the track next year.
If No. 29 almost killed Christensen, it has also certainly damaged him politically. It's the key to the troubling relationship between the councilman and William H. Lane, the managing director of Texas-based development firm Trammell Crow's Irvine office. That relationship, recently detailed in the Weekly ("Another Dave, Another Scandal," Sept. 15), centers on a $30,000 loan at 20 percent interest that Christensen took out from Lane in 1998 and on two city votes concerning Trammell Crow interests Christensen cast in the past year.
Christensen, who claimed he never received several phone messages the Weekly left when researching the story that appeared on Sept. 15, spoke freely about the loan and about his long-time friendship with Lane, who was his boss at Trammell Crow for more than eight years. Christensen said he approached Lane for a loan—"at a higher rate of interest than anyone would pay at a commercial institution"—to buy a Legends race car. Christensen explained that he went to Lane because banks wouldn't give him the loan for something so risky. The loan paid for Christensen's car, trailer and the rest of the racing package.
When Christensen got the loan and when he ultimately paid it off still isn't clear. The councilman says he doesn't remember when he first received the loan from Lane but says he paid it off in April or May 1999. Christensen declined to provide the Weekly with any loan documents.
The time frame is critical, because Trammell Crow, one of the largest developers and property managers in Irvine, had considerable business interests before the Irvine City Council in 1999 and 2000. Christensen was first elected to the council in 1996.
The council voted in August 1999 on a proposed light-rail line running through the Irvine Business Complex (IBC). At the time, Trammell Crow—a major fixture in the IBC—was heavily lobbying City Hall to approve the rail line. Christensen said his yes vote on the rail line was appropriate because the proposed route "didn't go through Bill Lane's property"—a true statement, but one that misses the point that Lane would have benefited hugely from the train's construction.
The second vote was in June of this year, for a traffic study to determine what—if any—traffic improvements Trammell Crow would have to fund for its mammoth Ritz-Carlton hotel project in its Irvine Park Place complex. If Christensen is correct about when he paid off the Lane loan, he would have passed the year breeze-period, required by the state, that allows officials to vote on companies in which they had financial interests—but just barely.
Even his method of repaying Lane raises questions about Christensen's ties to local companies with business before the city council. Throughout 1998, Christensen gathered numerous corporate sponsorships for his car from Irvine-area businesses. Those payments should have been listed in the councilman's Statement of Economic Interests filed in April 1999. But they weren't listed until July 19, 2000, when he filed an amended form. Saying the sponsors "were mistakingly [sic] not included" in his original filing, Christensen amended the form "as advised by the Irvine city attorney."
Christensen said the sponsorships cost $5,000 each. That bought sponsors a logo sticker on his car, trailer and driving suit. According to an industry racing brochure, such sponsorships will place a company logo before at least 6,000 people on a race weekend, as well as provide other possibilities for publicity.
Most of Christensen's sponsors refused to comment for this story. One notable exception was TRC Environmental Solutions, an Irvine-based engineering firm that most recently deemed an old Hughes Aircraft Co. plant in Fullerton safe for development.
"A gentleman at the company bought the sponsorship, not the company itself," said TRC spokesman Jeff Halleck, who declined to name the employee. When told that Christensen had specifically listed "TRC" on his amended statement, Halleck replied that the councilman was mistaken. Halleck said he would contact the man who originally purchased the sponsorship—then out of state—and get back to us. He didn't respond by press time.
"I approached the company for a sponsorship," said Christensen. Then, looking at a picture of himself by his car, he added that the TRC logo "was very prominent on my driving suit."
It's unclear why TRC or any other Irvine-based company would advertise with Christensen, whose races occur on tracks nowhere near Irvine: Las Vegas, Irwindale, El Cajon and San Bernardino.
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Those are the only local tracks that allow Legends racing. According to the company that builds the cars and markets the sport, Legends racing is increasingly popular throughout the nation and provides "an affordable race car with a unique design that requires little maintenance time and cost."
During the spring of 1999, Christensen raced in the Masters Division, which is only for drivers over 40 (Christensen is 54). Some of his earliest races ended pretty badly, with Christensen occasionally placing 26th and 27th out of 28 drivers. Track records show that throughout 1999, Christensen raced in 12 out of 22 possible races, usually finishing in the middle of the pack.
In addition to simply enjoying the racing, Christensen said he spent considerable time using his car to promote anti-drunk-driving messages. Last year, he even told the Weekly about his plan to use his car to fight the county's proposed El Toro International Airport. After racing, Christensen would explain to the crowds gathered around his car how bad the airport was going to be.
In any case, Christensen says he's very aware of potential conflicts of interest and has already asked the state Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) for guidance. His voting habits have changed noticeably in recent weeks, due to the sponsorship controversy. During the Sept. 12 Irvine City Council meeting, Christensen abstained from voting on a routine item involving Irvine-based Tuttle-Click auto sales, one of his race sponsors.