The long road to the Baltimore Grand Prix

Story of the city's street race begins on Martha's Vineyard

August 13, 2011|By Julie Scharper and Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

Steven Wehner had overcome dyslexia, a stint in jail on drug charges and the loss of his repair shop on Martha's Vineyard.

Living in the basement of his mother's Rodgers Forge home, he set his sights on his biggest challenge yet: Bringing an IndyCar race to downtown Baltimore.

With the drop of the green flag in three weeks, Wehner's dream will roar to life.

Glossy race cars are set to dart down newly paved roads alongside the Inner Harbor, bearing on their sleek frames the aspirations of city and state officials who are betting on the inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix to draw tens of thousands of race fans, pump tens of millions of dollars into the local economy and burnish the image of the city.

Organizers enlisted Indianapolis 500 champion Al Unser Jr. as a partner, won the support of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and picked former Secretary of State Colin Powell to serve as grand marshal.

But behind the scenes, the event was hatched by an eclectic group that included a state delegate, an engineering tycoon and Wehner — an out-of-work mechanic who wasn't even a fan of car racing.

Dropping names and twisting arms, he talked his way into meetings with key city, state and IndyCar officials.

Despite racing's mixed record elsewhere, Baltimore leaders bought into the idea, and have spent more money on race preparations than any other U.S. city in recent memory, according to the head of IndyCar.

Supporters see an event that could transform Baltimore's ordinarily sleepy Labor Day weekend, now and in the future. Detractors see a boondoggle that already has cost millions of dollars and tied up traffic around the course for months, even before it paralyzes a large part of the city for several days.

Neither organizers nor government officials expect the race to turn a profit in the first year. But they say staging events such as the Baltimore Grand Prix is a necessary gamble if the city, which came up short in bids to host the Olympic Games in 2012 and the FIFA World Cup in 2022, is to become a bigger player in international sports.

"If you're ever going to change the city's image, if you're ever going to grow a tax base and change perceptions, you have to be willing to try new things," said CityCouncilman William H. Cole IV, an early supporter of the race, which will run through his district.

Wehner did not appear to have the background to pitch a three-day sporting event for a major city. But he had determination, and he had connections.

More important, officials say, he had a winning idea.

The Vineyard

The story of Baltimore's Grand Prix begins not in a downtown boardroom but on the moneyed island of Martha's Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts.

Wehner, 51, made his home on the spit of land off Cape Cod for more than a decade, repairing Porsches and BMWs for its summer visitors.

The Baltimore native built bonds with islanders, including a race car-loving millionaire whose deep pockets proved vital in the early stages of creating the race.

Wehner, a stocky man with a white brush mustache, dresses as if he's ready for a day on the golf course or aboard a yacht. On a recent morning, he sported a white shirt emblazoned with the logo of his new company: IMD, short for International Marketing Development. Or, he said with a wink: "I make deals."

Wehner arrived at an interview this summer in a friend's sports car, telling reporters, "Follow the blue Porsche," before jumping into the passenger's seat and speeding down Roland Avenue. For a subsequent meeting, he pulled up in his own set of wheels: a Ford pickup pocked with rust.

By his own admission, Wehner is an inveterate name-dropper. He says frequently that he is descended from passengers aboard the Ark and the Dove — the ships that brought the first Europeans to Maryland.

But when Wehner arrived on the Vineyard, his life was far from luxurious.

It was 1994, five years after he had been released from the Baltimore County jail on drug conspiracy charges. He camped in a tent on the island for five weeks before finding an apartment.

Wehner fixed mopeds by day and worked as a sous chef at night. But soon he spotted a new market to tap: summer residents who were sending their foreign cars to the mainland for repairs.

Wehner, who had learned to work on cars in Baltimore, opened a business that he said grew into "the second-busiest shop on Martha's Vineyard for eight years."

He also developed contacts who would become some of the founding partners of Baltimore's Grand Prix.

His Vineyard friends rallied around Wehner when he tried to expand his repair shop into a gas station. A lawyer, a traffic engineer, and several financial backers helped him fight the island's government for permission to open the station.

The costly — and ultimately unsuccessful — legal battle eventually led to him to close the shop.

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