Boston: IndyCar has mixed record in other cities

Long Beach GP is best overall IndyCar race each season
Long Beach GP is best overall IndyCar race each season

The annual Grand Prix of Long Beach, Calif., has over its 40 years become one of the country's most successful street races, as well as one of the community's biggest events, now woven into city tradition.

In Baltimore, on the other hand, a brief experimentation with IndyCar beginning in 2011 was marred with complaints, court action, and financial trouble, despite reasonably strong attendance numbers for the races.

Street races can fill hotels and restaurants with tourists and their wallets, according to officials in other IndyCar race towns. But they can also bring inconvenience to residents and businesses near the racecourse, which has to be managed with meticulous planning.

The Grand Prix of Long Beach, Calif., which was founded in 1975, is expected to draw about 175,000 people in April. The estimated economic impact for the event is $35 million.

Whether the influx of tourists — and their money — outweighs the inevitable inconveniences to locals has been the subject of a sometimes passionate debate in Boston this year after Mayor Martin J. Walsh signed a deal to bring an IndyCar race to the Seaport District next Labor Day weekend.

Residents of a condo building overlooking the temporary course — an 11-turn, 2.2-mile circuit around the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center — have accused the city of negotiating a deal without proper public review. They have also expressed worries about neighborhood disruptions, parking, safety, and noise.

IndyCar race tickets on hold amid talks

Organizers still have to come to agreements with a number of agencies for the race in the Seaport to proceed.

  • Organizers, who hope to run the race for up to five years, are still negotiating critical deals with state agencies, including the Massachusetts Port Authority and the Department of Transportation.

Long Beach's grand prix, which was founded in 1975, will draw about 175,000 people over three days in April, said Michael Conway, Long Beach's director of economic and property development.

"Residents have gotten pretty used to it," he said in a phone interview.

The major inconvenience for residents is that the on-street racecourse — lined with concrete barriers and fencing for safety — takes over much of the downtown area and congests traffic over the race weekend, Conway said.

"Most people understand to stay away from downtown that weekend if they don't want to go to the grand prix," he said.

Installation of the barriers begins about 60 days before the event, and removal is completed within a couple weeks of the race, he said.

"That period of time causes some concern with the businesses over access for their patrons," he said, "but [after more than 40 years] I think we've worked through most of those issues."

Conway said because of noise concerns that date to the first race, organizers are obligated to temporarily relocate to hotels about 20 "legacy tenants" who have lived downtown since the first race in the 1970s, but not new residents who presumably knew what they were getting when they moved there.

On the plus side, the estimated economic impact for the event is $35 million, Conway said, and Long Beach hotels sell out. "It generates some significant occupancy tax for the city. The restaurants are all full. For food and beverage locations, it's a great weekend for them."

Race organizers reimburse Long Beach for city services, such as police, fire department, and public works, he said. Those costs are about $125,000 to $150,000 a year, he said. Local organizers have said they will cover the cost of municipal services in Boston as well.

"It's a tradition," Conway said of the Long Beach race. "Some people like it, some don't; the ones who don't probably plan a vacation that weekend. But it's a great family event. They have been growing every year. We have been increasing attendance over the years."

The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Fla., will run its 12th race in March, St. Petersburg's mayor, Rick Kriseman, said in an interview.

St. Petersburg promotes the race on the city website, and includes a recipe for "the official cocktail of race weekend," which is a rum mix garnished with mint and a slice of Florida orange. The race draws 140,000 to 150,000 spectators annually, the mayor said.

"It has become part of the fabric of our community," Kriseman said. "It's a fast sport and there's a lot of energy around it. It's an international audience that watches IndyCar races, especially street races. It gives an additional opportunity to showcase the beauty of the city," and attract tourists.

"For us, it's like a four-hour TV ad that we couldn't afford to pay for," Kriseman said. Most of the races are nationally televised by the NBC Sports Group.

Like residents of Long Beach, people in St. Petersburg who live near the track deal with noise on race weekend as well as the track setup and tear-down, he said. "That brings with it some inconvenience for the people who live and work in the area that they have to learn to deal with," he said. "It's not insurmountable."

The biggest challenge, especially for a new race, he said, is getting businesses near the track involved so they will benefit, and not lose business on race weekends because regular customers may stay away.

The Grand Prix of Baltimore, which ran three times beginning in 2011, encountered several obstacles, including a voter petition and a lawsuit over mature trees that were cut down along city streets. After the original organizers hit financial problems, a new group stepped in to briefly save the race, but announced in 2013 that the grand prix would not be back for at least two years, and may never return.

Spectators watched the Grand Prix of Long Beach from a nearby building.

Spectators watched the Grand Prix of Long Beach from a nearby building.

Barry Werner, an owner of the Scarborough Fair Bed & Breakfast near the racecourse in Baltimore, says good riddance to the Baltimore Grand Prix.

"We were told how great it was going to be and it just turned out — not!" he said.

The racecourse made it almost impossible to get from one side of downtown to the other without a ticket to the event, he said, and his business suffered.

The safety barriers and fencing gave downtown the look "of the old ‘Mad Max' films," he said. "Pretty hellish."

"It was mind-boggling to me we'd have downtown such a mess for a month, for one weekend," Werner said. "We never saw the money come back to us that was promised."

Better planning may have helped, he said. "If you've got good organizers, it can make a difference," said Werner. Race organizers should pay close attention to the concerns of residents and business owners, he said, "so everybody can succeed. And not act like they're doing us a favor by putting on this event."

Mark Arsenault/Boston Globe

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