Baltimore GP deserves a chance to succeed

Back in 1873, there probably were people who heard about the new stakes race over at Pimlico and wondered why anyone would give a hoot about a bunch of horses running around a dirt track on the edge of town.

No doubt, somebody complained about the equine pollution the event would generate and the logistical problems that would be created if it became so popular that the streets had to be widened to accommodate all the horse-drawn carriages converging on Young Hilltop, as it probably was called back then.

There will come a day when we no longer have to debate whether the Grand Prix of Baltimore is worth the trouble — one way or the other. The race will either survive long-term on its own merits or it won't, but it should be judged on the right criteria.

This is not about global warming or the architectural integrity of the downtown area. There is more fossil fuel burned on Pratt Street on any given weekday than will be consumed by all the Indy cars that navigate that part of the street track this weekend. And the concrete barriers that change the look of the city for a few weeks are a lot less offensive than that white elephant of a convention hotel that ruined the classic view at Oriole Park.

Nobody likes the traffic problems that come with a big downtown event, but they close streets and change the traffic patterns for Artscape and a lot of the same people complaining about the urban disruption caused by the Grand Prix can't wait for the world's largest free art festival each July.

Clearly, the Grand Prix is a more expensive proposition and should be held to a higher standard of overall economic benefit than the various other big events that are intended to spur commercial activity in the downtown area. But it should continue as long as city and race officials can answer yes to the following two-part question:

Will it, given appropriate time to establish itself as a part of Baltimore city life, generate enough economic activity to justify whatever investment of tax dollars is necessary to stage it every year, and will it have a quantifiably positive impact on the image of Baltimore as a tourist destination?

It may take another year or two to figure that out, but the international broadcast of the first two races featured so many striking views of the Inner Harbor area that the event couldn't help but improve the way Baltimore looks to a world that may only know it from sub-titled episodes of "The Wire."

The Preakness is a great event with 140 years of history, but Baltimore just might be more than a 14-horse town if we give the Grand Prix a chance to develop into something more than a short-term novelty act.

For that to happen, it has to become something more than a noisy Labor Day street festival, because it will not survive as simply a weekend trip for hardcore gearheads. The inaugural race in 2011 drew terrific crowds, but much of that interest was actually curiosity and attendance fell significantly last year.

Race organizers point to the financial and administrative upheaval that nearly made the 2011 race a one-and-done economic debacle as the reason they did not have sufficient time to promote last year's Grand Prix. That was undoubtedly the case, but Baltimore sports fans are going to have to invest more than their money to make it a 700-horsepower summertime bookend to the Preakness.

IndyCar racing is a high-tech international sport with intricate rules and a learning curve that requires more than a couple of races for new fans to fully understand what's going on. The first race allowed casual fans to appreciate the difficulty of navigating the street course, which features hairpin turns and temporary "chicanes" (speed bumps) to keep cars from literally flying off the road. Last year, the race was decided by a controversial restart after a late yellow caution flag, which required some serious post-race explanation.

The reason the Preakness draws six-figure crowds is not because there are that many hardcore horse racing fans in the Mid-Atlantic region. It is because there is wide-spectrum interest from casual fans who know just enough to enjoy the race and the festive environment. It probably wouldn't hurt if you could also bet on the Indy cars, but the Maryland legislature is not expected to take up that issue in the coming session. Baltimore Sun

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