Grand Prix organizers seek a mix of hard-core fans and novices looking for a spectacle

Racing lovers give Grand Prix a core audience, but event must attract casual fans to succeed

August 21, 2011|By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

Nick Nicaise's first word was "car." While his childhood pals mooned over Mickey Mantle, he idolized driver Dan Gurney.

And when his wife glimpsed a grown-up Nicaise beaming as he flitted around the garage area at an IndyCar race, she told him, "You're acting like a 12-year-old girl at a Beatles concert."

Nicaise, a computer reseller from Catonsville by day, is one of the thousands of car nuts for whom the arrival of the Baltimore Grand Prix is an unexpected gift. These guys and gals might not be as visible as Ravens fans, but they record races on their DVRs every weekend, drive their own cars at tracks around the Mid-Atlantic and travel to see the pros burn rubber in Indianapolis, Toronto and California.

Grand Prix organizers are counting on these fervent fans to make up the core of their audience for the IndyCar event on Labor Day weekend. But they acknowledge that the hard-core fans won't be enough to make the race a success. They also must capture the casual fans who might watch a few races a year and, most importantly, the novices looking to witness a spectacle the likes of which the city has never seen.

Jay Davidson, president of Baltimore Racing Development, says he fell in the last category when he began working to bring the race to Baltimore. But he's confident that the idea of watching cars whiz down Pratt Street at 150 mph will be intoxicating enough to draw 110,000 to 120,000 fans over three days.

"When cars go by at the speeds they're going on a city street, it's shocking," he says in explaining the allure to the uninitiated. "But in kind of a cool way. I know it got my heart rate going."

Based on conversations with race organizers in other cities, Davidson expects the audience to be 25 percent "gearheads," 25 percent casual racing fans and 50 percent people who are "interested in the spectacle, the whole experience."

Beyond the sensory blast offered by the cars, organizers hope to woo non-fans with rock concerts, games for children and access to the paddock on the first floor of the Baltimore Convention Center, where race teams will prepare their vehicles.

"Those people have to feel like they had a good experience," Davidson says of the spectacle crowd. "We need them to want to come back."

The same could be said for the event's corporate sponsors, many of whom have little experience with the sport.

Davidson says race organizers have sold tickets to people from 47 states, with about 60 percent going to the Baltimore-Washington region and healthy cuts going to Philadelphia and New York as well. He says about 80 percent of grandstand tickets are sold but also expects significant walk-up purchasing if the weather is nice on Labor Day weekend.

The event will probably make an initial splash, says John Moag, chairman of Moag & Co., a Baltimore-based investment bank that specializes in sports.

"A lot of people are excited about it in the sense that they're thinking, 'Wow, this is cool and different. It could be a lot of fun,'" Moag says. "They will draw people at the beginning. It's a question of will they come back [next year]."

Moag, who chaired the Maryland Stadium Authority in the 1990s, wonders about the Grand Prix's long-term prospects, given the way similar races failed in Washington, Detroit and San Jose, Calif.

"It's a very risky event for a whole lot of reasons," he says. "This is an untested market for this kind of event."

Baltimore has never hosted an IndyCar or NASCAR race and has no reputation as an auto racing town, but hard-core fans say that has not prevented them from nurturing their interest over the years.

Bob Hasychak says his Washington branch of the Sports Car Club of America is one of the organization's largest regional groups and has more than 2,000 members. Hasychak, who lives in Northern Virginia, will volunteer as a flagger, steering cars on and off the track for the Baltimore Grand Prix races.

"We're going to be your fan base," he says. "Some people will come for the party, like at the Preakness or something like that. But we're people who love to hear the whine of a car going by."

Hasychak loves the sound so much that he began racing a Cobra five years ago at age 52. He particularly fancies road races, because they require drivers to stop, turn and shift gears, just like everyday motorists.

"I can relate to it," he says.

He couldn't believe his good fortune when a road race landed an hour from his house. He drove up to Baltimore a few weeks ago to walk the course with his wife.

It's a ritual "gearheads" have shared in the last month.

A grin lit Nicaise's face when he drove downtown recently and saw the walls and barriers going up along the race route.

"I actually drove the course," he says sheepishly. "I couldn't help myself."

Nicaise has brought his passion to his day job.

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