A need for speed for new racing team

Grand Prix organizers must rush through preparations

May 11, 2012|By Julie Scharper and Steve Kilar, The Baltimore Sun

Before glossy race cars careen around downtown streets over Labor Day weekend, another high-speed race must be run.

The team promoting Baltimore's Grand Prix — a group announced by city officials this week after the collapse of two other race organizers — has less than four months to hawk sponsorships, market the event, sell tickets and set up the racecourse and grandstands.

Sports marketing experts say Race On, the new organizers that include racing champion Michael Andretti, must make those tasks their top priorities and also reassure racing fans that the event is on despite months of setbacks. With Andretti and two well-heeled local investors on board, experts say the race could be a success, though it still faces headwinds.

Bob Leffler, whose Baltimore-based agency promotes sports teams nationally, advised the team to focus advertising efforts in the Baltimore area to lure casual enthusiasts, because hard-core racing fans elsewhere are likely aware of the event. The organizers of the inaugural race, Baltimore Racing Development, had sold at least 50,000 tickets by this time last year.

"You have to undo the idea that this race isn't going to happen," said Leffler, whose company did minor work on last year's event. "You can still sell the tickets, but you have to spend a lot of money to do it."

Leffler added that Andretti, a member of one of racing's most renowned families, would be a boon in the search for sponsorship dollars. "That's a great name. He's a great brand," he said. "You can never underestimate someone with a brand because they can walk in with sponsors."

Terry Hasseltine, the state's director of sports marketing, said Andretti's involvement would reassure fans about the race. Hasseltine said race organizers need to speedily drum up race promotions and sell tickets, and that his agency would help.

"It brings instant credibility," said Hasseltine of Andretti's involvement. "It translates to people saying the race is going to happen."

Race On is led by two local investors, including one with close ties to MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blake, who have teamed up with Andretti's sports marketing company. Rawlings-Blake settled on the new team after weeks of negotiations.

Andretti, the son of legend Mario Andretti, is a retired driver who leads a team of racers. He worked on races inSt. Petersburg, Fla., and Toronto under a different company and formed Andretti Sports Marketing in October. Andretti's group also took over management of an IndyCar race in Milwaukee in March. Like the Baltimore race, the Milwaukee event had been organized previously by a group that left significant debts.

Racing insiders say that Andretti devotes most of his time to his racing team, and a management team that is working on the Milwaukee event will also lead race preparations in Baltimore. Andretti's group did not respond to requests for comment.

It is unclear how Andretti formed an alliance with his partners in the race, Columbia-based financier J.P. Grant and Greg O'Neill, a former race driver who runs a concrete contracting company.

Grant's allegiance to the mayor stretches back to 2008, when then-Council President Rawlings-Blake facilitated a donation of $8,400 from him for college scholarships for city high school students. Two years later, Grant chipped in $90,000 to keep city swimming pools open after budget cuts nearly led to pool gates closing weeks before students returned to school.

His company has handled $3.7 billion in contracts for public housing authorities and city governments across the country, including tens of millions of dollars in contracts with Baltimore City's government, public schools and housing authority, according to the company's website.

Grant, his company and relatives made tens of thousands of dollars of contributions to Rawlings-Blake's campaign last year. Nonetheless, he has maintained a low profile. He has not responded to requests for comment.

Arnold M. Jolivet, a leader of the American Minority Contractors and Businesses Association, praised Grant's largesse.

"The beauty of J.P. is he never asks for anything in return," said Jolivet, who has known Grant for decades. "When he gives, he gives freely and unconditionally."

O'Neill, who previously submitted a proposal to take over the race with another investor, also has landed government contracts. He is the vice president of the BMW Construction of Curtis Bay, which has received more than $23 million in federal defense contracts over the past decade, according to public records.

O'Neill also has not responded to requests for comment.

Rawlings-Blake, in a news release announcing the latest deal, said that Andretti's group would arrive with a "turnkey" solution to organize the race and would handle public relations, marketing, track construction, food and beverage vendors and ticket sales in addition to sponsorships, which are key to a profitable race.

It's not clear which — if any — sponsors the group will be bringing with it.

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