JACKSONVILLE, FLA. – It didn't take Richard Gross long to realize something had gone wrong one recent night at his company AA Susie's Limousine in Jacksonville, Fla.
Gross drove into the lot where he keeps his fleet - six very long rides, including a stretch Ford Excursion, a stretch Infiniti and his pride and joy, a $120,000 stretch Hummer that holds up to 18 people - and noticed that several of the vehicles’ windows were smashed. Closer inspection showed the cars had been picked clean of their plasma TVs, DVD players and stereos, Gross said, and the interiors were haphazardly vandalized.
A little more than a week before 100,000 deep-pocketed visitors were due in town for Super Bowl XXXIX, Gross anticipated one of the most profitable weekends of the year. He scrambled to put his fleet back together. Asked who he thought was responsible for the damage, he said only, "The timing is awfully suspicious."
Perhaps no single event creates as much demand for exotic stretch limousines as the Super Bowl, and this year's game, in the relatively limousine-challenged city of Jacksonville, has prompted a high-stakes frenzy as limo owners from around the Southeast flood the town preparing to do battle for the high-paying clientele.
For fans, who have paid at least the $350 face value for tickets to the game, the superstretch limo is both the ultimate fashion accessory and an antidote to the three-day traffic jam that befalls most Super Bowl host cities. To keep the party going between hotels, bars and Alltel Stadium, where the game between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles will be played on Feb. 6, you need the equivalent of a nightclub on wheels.
Clifford Popper, a bond portfolio manager from Boca Raton, Fla., has rented a stretch Bentley to take clients to the Hawaiian Tropic model party on Friday night before the game. He said the limousine rental accounted for $2,000 of a $15,000 Super Bowl package he purchased, and that he has no regrets about the Bentley's cost.
"It makes a statement," he said. "It turns heads and it's equated with being successful."
"It's the premier event in this country in terms of visibility," he said of the Super Bowl, "so you want to be in sync with that."
Popper will have lots of company on the open road. Robert Carle, the chief of the parking facilities and enforcement division of the city of Jacksonville, whose department inspects and issues medallions to limousines in Jacksonville, said that usually the city had around 200 active limousines. As of January 28, he said his agency had issued 1,084 medallions, many for monster vehicles - stretch Mercedes-Benzes, BMW SUVs, Jaguars, Chrysler 300's and, of course, Hummers, the biggest you've ever seen. While Carle normally deals with local limousine companies, for the Super Bowl he has had applicants from all over the South and as far away as Omaha.
Under normal circumstances, the monster-limo game is a collegial one; limousine companies in one city with a surge in demand will typically pass along business to out-of-town companies for a fee of 20 percent for each referral.
But the Super Bowl seems to create a less cooperative atmosphere. Premium limousine rentals for the Super Bowl are going for up to $300 an hour, plus tip and a 10 percent service fee surcharge, with a 30-hour minimum for the long weekend. There's also a $150 parking fee at the stadium for the land yachts.
For many limousine owners, who scrape by on the occasional wedding and convention between prom seasons, a windfall at the Super Bowl could make or break their year. Miki Bacher, owner of Topper Limousine in Atlanta, is making the five-hour drive to Jacksonville with 15 cars, even though he doesn't yet have reservations.
"Everybody's asking," he said. "But the money isn't on the table yet."
Hotel rooms in Jacksonville have been booked for some time, so many limo drivers pouring into town will have limited options for catching some rest, should their clients go to sleep at all.
"For the most part, they stay in the car," said Tom Johnson, the manager of South Florida Transportation, a Miami-based limousine company that bills itself as "Your Hummer Specialists." Johnson said he is planning to charge $250 an hour for his rides. The driver's goal, he said, was to "keep the car moving 20 hours a day."
The influx of monster limos has created tensions between local drivers and opportunists from out of town. Gross, the owner whose limos were vandalized, said of the outsiders, "If they weren't here, we could get $1,000 an hour."
Bud Foster, owner of American Limousine and Transportation in Jacksonville, which has five limousines, including a stretch BMW X5 SUV and a Bentley, complained that the out-of-towners do not know their way around.
"They don't have the slightest idea where they're going," he said. Foster, who said his fleet has been reserved, added that most of his Super Bowl customers were corporate clients.