Impressive showing for second annual Grand Prix of Baltimore

Let's get the few negatives out of the way first. The threat of rain probably kept the crowds down. There was a re-start controversy that ticked off some of the top drivers. And there were enough wrecks slowing Sunday's Grand Prix of Baltimore to make it feel like the JFX in a snowstorm.

But for an event that came together only three months ago after one deadbeat outfit stiffed the city of $1.5 million in taxes and fees and another folded its tent altogether, it wasn't a bad weekend at all.

And Ryan Hunter-Reay's dramatic last-second win was a terrific finish for an event that's taken more shots than the Kardashians the past two years.

"We think we had a smashing success this year," said J.P. Grant, the Columbia money guy who stepped in to save the race this spring. "We wanted to put on a race that was financially sound, a great race, so that the business community knows this is a race they can support."

We'll get to the business community in a minute. First a word about attendance.

IndyCar doesn't release attendance figures for its races. Neither does Andretti Sports Marketing, the event's promoter. The whole thing is hush-hush for some reason, probably because they're privately owned companies who don't feel a need to share this stuff.

So we're not exactly sure how many showed up to watch three days of high-performance race cars whizzing through the streets of Baltimore.

From my viewpoint, the crowds lining Pratt Street and baking in the stands along the course didn't seem as big as the ones at the 2011 inaugural event.

But race officials seemed to think last year's figures were padded anyway. So maybe that's another controversy brewing.

"We're pleased with the attendance," said Jade Gurss, director of communications for Andretti Marketing. "The group last year announced 160,000, which we think was greatly exaggerated. Security sources told us a lot of people last year might have gotten in free.

"Our dilemma is, we may have fewer total numbers, but we more likely have a higher number of paying customers."

And paying customers are the ones that pay the bills. A minor technicality which, again, seemed to escape last year's promoters.

There seemed to be a nice mix to this year's race crowds, too.

Sure, you had the hard-core gearheads, who'd probably show up in your driveway if you popped the hood of your car.

But judging from the conversations I heard, there were a ton of casual fans, too. And casual fans are the life-blood of any major event like this one.

Let's face it, if the Preakness had to rely on the aging, cigar-chomping rail birds who show up at Pimlico the rest of the year, it would have left town long ago.

And it's the same thing with the Grand Prix, which needs to sell itself as an annual event that's as fun and intrinsic to this city as the Preakness.

"That's what we're trying to create, that this isn't just a race," Grant said. Maybe that's why he said the mantra for race organizers this year was simple: "Baltimore is open for business."

So let's get back to the business community for a moment.

We'll find out in the next few days how the merchants made out off the race. But initial reports from places like Federal Hill and Little Italy and Canton indicated business was better than last year.

Last year, of course, trying to get off the course grid to hit local restaurants felt like you were pulling off a prison break.

There was a confounding maze of chain-link fencing and road barriers all around the two-mile course, with few signs telling anyone — never mind confused out-of-towners — how to make a break for it.

But it was much easier to get around this year.

There were more gates to get in and out of the grid. Race-goers could enter and exit when they wanted to. It felt far less enclosed and claustrophobic.

There was even reserved parking this year — and not just for rich guys, either. You could actually sign up for it online when you purchased your ticket.

All in all, this year's event ran far more smoothly than last year's, which is astounding when you consider organizers had only 100 days to put it together.

"You can't even put a wedding together in 100 days," said Michael Andretti, the owner of Andretti Racing, Hunter-Reay's team.

But somehow they pulled off a big race in that time. It made Baltimore look good. And it made for a great Labor Day weekend in this town. Baltimore Sun

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