Indy Race Would Be Safe, Organizers Contend

Business Group Pushing Economic Benefits To City, State

July 08, 2009|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,

They do it in St. Petersburg, Fla., Toronto and Long Beach, Calif.

But is Baltimore the proper setting for an IndyCar race on a looping, 2.4-mile street course around the convention center and Camden Yards?

Organizers of the proposed Baltimore Grand Prix know that the prospect of racing cars around the Inner Harbor area sounds scary. The group is using the example of other cities that have staged such downtown races to try to make a case to Baltimore that they are safe - and an economic boon.

Among those recently delivering a message to Mayor Sheila Dixon - in the form of a videotaped testimonial - was Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster. He sat at his desk with his hands clasped in front of him and urged the mayor "to do her homework."

"There are issues you have to deal with," Foster said in the testimonial, forwarded to the mayor's office by Baltimore Racing Development, a limited liability company headed by Steven Wehner, a Baltimore-based entrepreneur.

"There are traffic issues, safety issues and other things. Those are manageable, particularly if you have a good race partner," Foster said. "I would urge her to carefully consider it because, for us, it's made a dramatic improvement in Long Beach. And I think it would make a world of difference for Baltimore."

Foster said in an interview that the nationally televised race, held in Long Beach for 35 years, helped the city transform its image from a "Navy town" to a tourist destination. "I know Baltimore is a city that kind of revitalized itself also," Foster said.

Dixon has made no decision about the race, which organizers say would generate as much as $100 million during four days of events. Terry Hasseltine, director of the state's office of sports marketing, concurred with that economic estimate.

Long Beach brings in about $30 million from the race in hotel stays, restaurant visits and other spending, Foster said. Baltimore has about twice the population of Long Beach and would be expected to draw race fans from Washington, Philadelphia and New York.

"This is a market in the Mid-Atlantic region that they [the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series] would love to get into," said William Cole, a City Council member who represents the race area.

The next step is for the City Council to approve a resolution - sponsored by Cole - this summer authorizing Baltimore Racing Development to negotiate with the Indy Racing League to get on the 2011 race schedule. BRD is looking for a date in the late summer or early fall and is proposing to stage the race for five years.

The company is working on noise and traffic management studies for the city that could be completed within about a month, said Jay Davidson, a Baltimore attorney who is the chief operating officer of BRD.

According to Davidson, private funding would pay for the barriers, fencing, grandstands and other equipment. The money would come from investors and the sale of sponsorships once there was an agreement with the Indy Racing League. Investors would hope to realize a profit from ticket sales, concessions and sponsorships.

The course would cover parts of Pratt Street, Russell Street and other roads, with a pit area adjacent to Oriole Park. Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Jr. helped map the course. Unser said he looked for roads that could accommodate nearby grandstands and runoff areas if cars needed to leave the track. He said the Inner Harbor would provide a scenic shot "when the camera pulled back."

Downtown restaurant owners' sentiments were mixed.

"I think it's pretty cool," said Scott McDonald, 33, owner and operator of The Nest on Pratt Street. "It looks like it's hitting all the busiest streets of downtown, so regarding auto traffic that's going to be a nightmare. But God bless it, with my patio being what it is."

Royston Gerun, 39, owner of Royston's Hot Dog Cart, said that "anything that brings money to the city, revenue to the city, brings joy to the city."

Asked about the noise problems of race cars, he replied, "It can't be any noisier than those big, loud motorcycles that come through on Saturdays and Sundays like they're on a racetrack - we're used to noise around here."

Teresa M. Nelson, 33, manager of Luna Del Sea at 300 W. Pratt St., was not as excited. "Will it guarantee us business? No," she said. She was one of the many people who heard of the plan for the first time Tuesday.

"If we can bring in racecar drivers like these guys," she said, pointing to a wall of photos featuring athletes Michael Phelps, Ray Lewis and Michael Irvin, "the owner will be happy."

Matt Helme, 38, owner of Maisy's, said the race could bring more than a monetary benefit for the city. "It'll be great, and hopefully it'll force them to fix the streets," he said.

Downtown residents like Danny Phythian, 23, are looking forward to living near pit row. "I think it'd be cool. If it worked everywhere else, why not here?" he said, pointing to the success of other cities hosting IndyCar races. "It will definitely increase business for race day."

Downtown street races aren't the right fit everywhere. In 2007, organizers announced that San Jose, Calif., would no longer host a downtown race that was part of the Champ Car World Series. The organizers said construction in the downtown area made it problematic to set up the course.

BRD's Davidson said the Baltimore race might sound "sort of menacing or different or unusual. But there are cities that have done it and do it well."

Baltimore Sun reporter Aaron Wright contributed to this article.

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