Helio Castroneves looking for a lift at Baltimore Grand Prix

Three-time Indy 500 winner hopes to turn season around in city, where Labor Day Weekend race is taking shape

July 03, 2011|By Sandra McKee, The Baltimore Sun

Three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves has not had the season he had expected, which is one reason he is eager to come to the IndyCar Baltimore Grand Prix on Sept. 2-4.

No one has driven the track that will be set up here in the next eight weeks, and that means every driver will be on a level playing field. Castroneves, who grew up racing on street courses in his native Brazil and around the world, considers that an advantage.

"I'm really excited to race there," Castroneves said this past weekend. "It's a new course in a new city, and my background is street racing. I'm trained from the beginning to turn right and left."

Four consecutive top-10 finishes have moved Castroneves up to 12th in the drivers points standings, but he is still looking for his first win. He hopes it comes before the series gets here, but he's buoyed by the promise of the Baltimore race.

"On road courses, you can push to the limit without risk because they are designed for it. On street courses, you can still take chances, but the streets were not designed for racecars," he said. "There are bumps, there are sections of concrete and patches, plus the walls are close by. It's very challenging, but the fans love it and I love it. It's all about finding shortcuts, about cutting the corners and cutting the angles 90 percent. And the good news for the fans is you can see the speed."

Two months from Baltimore's race weekend, Castroneves said he is hearing a lot of positive chatter about the race from drivers and sponsors. And race promoter Jay Davidson said the event is on course in terms of track preparation, ticket sales and corporate hospitality and sponsorships.

The track roadwork that has snarled downtown traffic this summer is likely to continue right up to race weekend as the paving gives way to track setup late next month. But the course, the paving and design have been given a thumbs-up by IndyCar Series inspectors, who have visited the city twice over the past two months to make sure the course meets track requirements.

"They're right on schedule, and I don't foresee any problems," said Tony Cotman, president of NZR Consulting, which works with the IndyCar Series on new track designs. "In about two to three weeks, they'll begin to build the track. They'll start placing temporary barriers and begin outlining the course on the outside, and people will begin to see it take shape. The disruptions won't be as bad as the paving has been. But there will be a lot of night work and lane closures. Morning commutes will be disrupted. But it leads to what makes street racing unique, and it is absolutely worth it in the long term for the city and the economic impact of the future.

"The course will have some elevation and a couple of long straights. The straight down Pratt Street, it is definitely going to be an interesting event. The goal is to put on a good show, and I think the city of Baltimore will be the major benefactor because what's special is the track running right along the Inner Harbor. It will be a fantastic showcase and very unique."

Davidson said more than 50,000 tickets have been sold, a number IndyCar series director of business affairs Sarah Davis said "is almost unheard of" and makes it very likely the race will draw more than 100,000 people over the three-day weekend. Grandstand seats are 60 percent sold for Saturday, which will feature the American Le Mans Series for sports cars, and 65 percent sold for Sunday, the day of the IndyCar race.

"Sometimes advanced ticket sales aren't exceptional," Davis said. "People usually want to wait and see what their schedules look like, what the weather will be and what their children are into. But this race in this place has really generated excitement and interest. … Our sponsors couldn't be happier. And Baltimore is going to have a wonderful three-hour commercial for the city."

Sponsor happiness is translating into corporate hospitality sales. Seventy of 80 suites have been sold, ranging in price from $7,500 for a patio tent suite to $25,000 for a pit lane suite to more than $50,000 for a mobile unit.

Sponsorships have also been a surprise. Though the end result will be better than the original projections, the way promoters are getting there is far different from what was expected. IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard said several months ago that finding a "title" sponsor was a top priority, and Davidson said he had thought he would find one large sponsor to spend $1.1 million to $1.3 million, with smaller sponsors contributing the rest of the $2 million he hoped to raise in sponsorships.

"But we've got a large mix of five- and six-figure sponsors," Davidson said. "There are 35 or 40 different ones now, and we're still two months out. In many ways, this is much better because it means more people are invested in the project."

Bernard has come around to seeing the positive side of that approach.

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