Organizers Ready To Wave Green Flag On Baltimore Grand Prix
Despite initial uncertainty following the inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix, the streets of downtown Baltimore again will transform into a race track during Labor Day weekend, Aug. 31-Sept. 2, as the IZOD IndyCar Series and the American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patron return to the city.
In its second year, the event is now under the direction of a third organizing group. But Baltimoreans are counting on a legendary racing name -- Andretti -- to ensure the Grand Prix of Baltimore becomes an annual staple of Labor Day weekend.
After city officials terminated contracts with two other groups during a four-month span, the board of estimates approved a five-year agreement in mid-May to award the event to Race On LLC and Andretti Sports Marketing. The new team wasted little time putting its stamp on the race.
Two immediate, and noticeable, moves Andretti Sports Marketing made were changing the name to the Grand Prix of Baltimore, and unveiling a new logo for the event. John Lopes, president of Andretti Sports Marketing, said in May that the group changed the name and logo because it wanted to come out with a new brand and feel for the event.
In addition, the new organizers made changes to the track itself. Construction for the 12-turn, two-mile circuit began on July 30 as the first Jersey barrier was placed at McKeldin Square. The changes to the race track for 2012 include remodeling the chicane to create extra turns after the straightaway along Pratt Street. The new design will also allow for improved passing areas around the course, which is expected to result in higher top speeds for drivers. (Click here for map.)
A significant difference that pleases many businesses around the track is the construction schedule the new organizers have implemented to ensure those entities don't suffer during the building process.
Michael Andretti, the founder of Andretti Sports Marketing and a former CART driver, said the group wanted people to know Baltimore was open for business, and would build the circuit only at night to lessen impact on the traffic and businesses in the downtown area.
"It's more expensive and time consuming for us to build the track like that," Andretti said, "but we're doing it to have as little hindrance on business as possible.
"We're doing a lot of small things that we believe will make a big difference -- from improving the flow of pedestrians inside the track, to building a schedule of events that, compared to last year, ends earlier each day, which means people can head out each night to enjoy the restaurants in all of the great neighborhoods around the track."
Mike Durham and his wife, Jerry, have owned The Sport Shop at Harborplace for more than 26 years. For them, last year's race wasn't positive for business.
"I think last year's Grand Prix was great for the city, but I don't think it was necessarily good for the merchants along the track," Durham said. "It took such a long time to build the stands, and they blocked the flow of traffic from one building to another, so that negatively impacted us for a long period of time.
"I understand that when you do something this big, it does impact people. It appears to me that the new organizers are more conscious of what went wrong last year and seem to be about doing things in a more expeditious way."
Durham said his store didn't get an increase in any traffic during the event last year, which gave him lower expectations for this year's sales.
Other businesses around the track are capitalizing on the race's return.
Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards is located along the course and adjacent to the pit road area that will be positioned along the warehouse. The Grand Prix is already having a positive impact on the attraction.
"You have 160,000 people being delivered to your doorstep on what is normally a very quiet weekend," said John Hein, director of business development at Sports Legends Museum. "Our prime location enabled us to utilize Sports Legends as a sales vehicle, and we rented the museum to a group for the entire three days of the 2012 event. Even though the museum is closed, our store will be open and selling race merchandise, along with Baltimore-themed items of the Orioles, Ravens and Natty Boh. So that provides us another amazing benefit."
Race On and Andretti Sports Marketing took control of the Grand Prix roughly 100 days out from the race.
"We saw the potential to make this a premier event," Andretti said. "The huge crowds for the first race really showed the level of interest -- the level of excitement -- for the race.
"Our sport needs marquee events, and, as I said before, we saw the enthusiasm and fan response here last year. As a race team, we were only here for a few days, but we all saw it. It had a great energy the entire weekend. Our drivers loved it, and our sponsors loved it."
Despite the late start, organizers have been able to secure roughly a dozen sponsors, including Sunoco, Dr Pepper TEN, Giant Foods and DHL. They didn't budget for a title sponsor this year, because it would have been a large investment to make on short notice.
"We never contemplated having a title sponsor so late in the game," Race On manager and founder J.P. Grant said. "This late into the year, most businesses have spent or committed their marketing dollars. We understood this going in.
"There's tremendous public support for this event, but the corporate community isn't able to support the event like they would prefer. We expect a significant increase in corporate support in 2013."
Despite the problems the event's initial organizers had, ESPN reported following the 2011 race that the Baltimore Grand Prix was the most successful inaugural American street racing event during the past 30 years.
According to Terry Hasseltine, executive director of the Maryland Office of Sports Marketing, events such as the Grand Prix, soccer matches, Army-Navy games and NCAA lacrosse tournaments bring built-in media and exposure, which are important when positioning Maryland as a leader in the sports event industry.
"Anytime you can successfully produce events with global outreach and exposure, you are establishing your position as a leading sports destination," Hasseltine said. "Events like the Grand Prix of Baltimore only enhance our position in the international sports landscape. Baltimore and Maryland are then looked at more often when new opportunities present themselves regionally, nationally and internationally."
Andretti said the Grand Prix of Baltimore could become one of the most successful street races in the world.
"This is a great location, because you also have a city and a track that looks great on television," Andretti said. "IndyCar and the American Le Mans Series both receive significant media coverage around the world. So, for the downtown area and the Inner Harbor, it's like a worldwide commercial.
"Baltimore is a city that can draw crowds from all around the region. We want people from Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., and everywhere in the Mid-Atlantic area to come out and spend their Labor Day weekend in Baltimore, and we want to build a tradition where it becomes something they just can't miss. It's a great race, but it's also an event or a festival that the whole family can enjoy and that people are going to want to come back to year after year. If it succeeds … it will be something that Baltimore can be proud of."
Race On is a Maryland company led by Grant, president and CEO of Grant Capital Management, and Greg O'Neill, owner of BMW Construction. The LLC contracted with Andretti Sports Marketing to run all commercial and operational aspects of the Grand Prix. Andretti Sports Marketing previously resurrected race events in Toronto; St. Petersburg, Fla.; and Milwaukee.
A member of the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, Andretti is also chairman, president and CEO of Andretti Autosport, a race team that has twice won IndyCar's signature event, the Indianapolis 500 (2005 and 2007), along with three Indy Racing League championships (2004, 2005 and 2007).
"The Andretti brand signifies success and quality," Grant said. "Going into this event and given the timing of the event, we needed to establish credibility immediately. The Andretti brand goes a long way towards that goal."
Jade Gurss, director of corporate communication for Andretti Autosport, declined to disclose how many tickets had been sold to date.
"Those are numbers we do not share publicly," Gurss wrote in an e-mail, "but we are pleased with the progress of ticket sales thus far."
It's estimated that the inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix had a $47 million economic impact on Baltimore, while attracting more than 160,000 people to the area. City officials terminated their contract with Baltimore Racing Development, organizers of the initial race, on Dec. 30, 2011, after the group failed to pay more than $1.5 million to the city. Officials then entered into an agreement in February 2012 with Downforce Racing to run the street race, but negated that contract in April after the group failed to meet several key benchmarks.
Depending on the level, tickets for the 2012 Grand Prix range from $15 to $185, and are available via Ticketmaster and the event's Web site, RaceOnBaltimore.com.
The Grand Prix of Baltimore is seeking volunteers in areas including event ceremonies, fan fun zones, guest services, hospitality, media center, track services and more. Detailed information can be found in the volunteer section of RaceOnBaltimore.com or by calling 443-759-4208.