The men behind Downforce Racing have convinced city officials they have the skills to run the Baltimore Grand Prix, have secured the blessing of IndyCar executives and have sweated through months of contract negotiations.
But those efforts pale in the face of the challenge that now lies before them: pulling together an expensive and elaborate racing festival in just six months.
"This group needs to get moving now and not wait," said Lisa Delpy Neirotti, a professor of sports marketing at George Washington University. "They have plenty of time, but they just need to spring into action now."
The city canceled its contract with the organizers of last year's race after they ran up $12 million in debt and left creditors unpaid. Downforce Racing — Indianapolis-based contractor Dale Dillon and former Constellation Energy Group executives Felix J. Dawson and Daniel Reck — formally won a contract with the city this week, after a 3-2 Board of Estimates vote.
Now they must open offices and hire staff, sign deals with contractors, plan the track, sell tickets and craft a new image for a Labor Day weekend event that many Baltimoreans associate with snarled traffic and unpaid debts.
The first and perhaps most important task is finding a company to sign on as the festival's title sponsor, a designation generally worth $1 million to $2 million. That money could fund marketing, salaries and contractors before ticket sales begin.
"If you don't have a title [sponsor], the chance of this being a financial success is very small," said Tom H. Regan, a professor of sport and entertainment management at the University of South Carolina.
Baltimore Racing Development, the group that put on the inaugural race, never landed a title sponsor. As last year's race approached, race organizers and city officials shrugged off concerns about the lack of one.
But when the Baltimore Racing group collapsed in debt, both the group and city leaders attributed some of the financial problems to the lack of an influx of cash from a title sponsor.
Dillon, who has worked on races in St. Petersburg, Fla., and Toronto, says finding a sponsor is a "top priority." And he is hopeful that he will be able to sign a sponsorship deal.
"We're in those conversations now," Dillon said. Landing a title sponsor is "the goal of every event."
Regan said Downforce has about a month and a half to secure a sponsorship deal. As the date of the race looms closer, there are fewer benefits for a sponsor, he said.
Delpy Neirotti, the George Washington professor, said most sports sponsorship deals are signed about a year before the event.
"The sponsors are losing time to get their name out," she said. Most companies work out their budgets a year in advance, so it can be hard to secure last-minute sponsorship money, she said.
Delpy Neirotti said Downforce's five-year contract with the city could be a boon as the racing group seeks sponsors. The group could structure a deal in which the sponsor pays a minimum for the title rights in the first year but contributes substantially more in the future, she said.
Robin Miller, a racing analyst for the SPEED Channel, said that the popularity of last year's event should help the new group find a sponsor.
Drivers praised Baltimore's street track and enthusiastic audience, and nearly 110,000 tickets were sold over the three days of the racing festival. IndyCar executives, eager to capitalize on the Mid-Atlantic market, consider the race one of the jewels of its 2011 season.
"All they have to do is show [potential sponsors] pictures of last year's race," Miller said.
Last year's successes should also help ticket sales because those who have fond memories of the race are likely to come back. Dillon said he hopes to begin selling tickets in mid-March.
Although ticket sales are starting later than last year — and Downforce has missed the chance for holiday-season sales — city officials say that 70 percent of last year's tickets were sold in the three months leading up to the race.
Regan, the University of South Carolina professor, said this year's ticket sales are an important indicator of the long-term viability of the race.
"You're going to want to see a significant majority of people who bought tickets last year buying them again," he said.
Downforce will be somewhat hampered in efforts to reach out to those who bought tickets last year — the old group owns the list of those who purchased tickets, and it's unclear whether it will sell the list.
The old group also purchased about $1.2 million in concrete barriers and fences now stored at a former Department of Transportation garage off Russell Street. Because those assets were used as collateral for a loan from M&T Bank, it is unclear who owns them. It also is unclear whether Downforce will try to purchase the old barriers and fences, or commission new ones.