Hosting Baltimore Grand Prix is worth the headaches

June 09, 2011|By Kevin Cowherd

The whining about the Baltimore Grand Prix grows louder and louder, doesn't it?

With less than three months to the big race, here's what we're hearing now: They're tearing up the streets downtown! They're closing off lanes! The traffic congestion is awful!

What's the big surprise here, people? Didn't we know this was going to happen?

Hey, the city signed up for a big IndyCar race Labor Day weekend. Hopefully it'll bring a ton of money to downtown businesses. And give Baltimore the kind of exposure you couldn't buy unless Anthony Weiner held a news conference here.

But you can't just plop a race course in the middle of a city without a few hassles.

The streets have to be fixed so these high-performance cars don't hit a pothole and fly into orbit over Harbor Place.

Grandstands have to be built so people can watch the races. Safety fences need to be erected so a car doesn't slam into the crowd and wipe out a dozen spectators. Corporate tents and fancy track-side suites need to go up for the high rollers.

Sure, all that ends up being a major inconvenience for the folks who work and live downtown. OK, it's often more than just an inconvenience. It's often a royal pain in the butt.

But with any luck, the weekend will be a huge success. And we'll all be able to look back on it months from now and say: OK, all the aggravation was worth it. That was some crackerjack event. Baltimore did itself proud.

(OK, before we go any further, no, I don't live downtown. But I drive there a lot for work. I get stuck in the same just-shoot-me traffic jams everyone else does. So I can play the same poor-pitiful-me card when I'm stewing in a backup on Pratt Street and banging my head on the dashboard.)

As of now, race officials are wildly optimistic about the crowds they'll draw for the big weekend in September.

A few months ago, they were talking about nearly 100,000 spectators. But that's since been revised upward.

"My prediction is closer to 120,000 to 150,000," said Jay Davidson Wednesday.

Davidson is the president of Baltimore Racing Development, a group of investors responsible for bringing the race here. He's also the guy who hears enough gripes about the downtown roadwork to have a perpetual Excedrin headache.

Davidson points out that much of the roadwork going on downtown was necessary, and part of a three-year plan that the city compressed as the race neared.

But even when BGE trucks are summoned to fix a gas leak, as happened the other day on Light Street, further snarling traffic, guess who takes the heat?

"I feel like we're getting blamed for every construction project around the city," Davidson said.

But the fact is, there are always growing pains with a project like this. And sometimes you have to put up with a little pain to reap the benefits. And the bottom line is that race officials expect the Grand Prix to generate revenues of between $50 million and $60 million.

Davidson said he couldn't talk specific numbers with regard to ticket sales. But he said they've been very strong so far.

With the race weekend still three months off, he said 60 percent of the grandstand seats have been sold for the big race that Sunday. And 55 percent of grandstand seats have been sold for the American LeMans Series race the day before.

If you doubt what an event like this can do for the city, Davidson said, go talk to the people of Toronto and Long Beach, Calif., and St. Petersburg, Fla., where similar IndyCar races have been held to glowing reviews.

"The mayor of St. Petersburg equates the economic impact to having a Final Four," Davidson said.

And the $7.7 million that Baltimore has committed to fixing up the roads and shoring up infrastructure?

Davidson says that's a drop in the bucket compared to what Baltimore and Washington would spend if the cities landed a big event like World Cup soccer or even theSummer Olympics.

So, yes, there are going to be traffic hassles when you put on a race like this. And noise hassles when the big weekend finally arrives.

But, again, what did we expect?

When these IndyCars are screaming around the track at 190 mph, they don't exactly sound like a fleet of Dodge Caravans picking the kids up from school.

Davidson said that won't be the end of the world, either.

"When you're right on a track," he said, "it sounds like a swarm of bees. When you're a block away, it's not that bad."

The truth is, none of these hassles are that bad.

It's time to man up, Baltimore. Want a major-league event like the Grand Prix? It usually comes with a few headaches.

Sometimes you just have to deal with them.

(Listen to Kevin Cowherd Tuesdays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. with Jerry Coleman on V1370 AM Sports.)

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