Grand Prix of Baltimore needs to make second chance count

August 30, 2012|Peter Schmuck

If it's possible to look back on last year's inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix without dwelling on the economic backlash that turned it into a financial 50-car pileup, it was a pretty cool event.

The downtown area was packed all weekend and race organizers estimated that close to 150,000 fans from near and far showed up for three days of IndyCar and American Le Mans Series racing. It all went off without a hitch, until they started counting the receipts.

Now, it's time to find out whether the novelty has worn off or the race will catch on big-time and become a second Preakness-like celebration at the other end of each summer.

The new organizers of the event already are conceding that they aren't going to match last year's ticket numbers and that the race could continue to lose money for the next couple of years, but Baltimore's second Labor Day weekend of open-wheel racing will be a big success if it succeeds in convincing this town that it's worth the trouble.

It certainly seemed to be a year ago when popular driver Will Power took the checkered flag and everyone was buzzing about the surprisingly big turnout for a debut event. But the euphoria started to wear off when a lot of local merchants complained that they had been boxed out of the commercial bonanza the race was supposed to generate and everybody from the tax collectors to the vendors were left to wonder if the checks would ever arrive.

Nothing like that is expected to happen this year. City officials have been assured by the race organizers -- Race On LLC and Andretti Sports Marketing -- that all the bills will be paid. There also have been changes in the course and logistical adjustments to make it easier for fans to circulate throughout the downtown area and patronize more of the local businesses.

Certainly, last year's inaugural Grand Prix weekend left some wrinkles to be ironed out, but the IndyCar Series could teach a lot of other sports about maximizing the fan experience. The ability of both the hardcore gearheads and the casual fans to get close to both the action on the racetrack and the intrigue behind the scenes should bring a lot of people back for the second edition -- which, by the way, is now known as the Grand Prix of Baltimore.

Since Baltimore is not a traditional auto racing stronghold, however, the organizers and the politicians who are working so hard to turn the Grand Prix into a Labor Day weekend tradition can only hope that the public curiosity about the event that was reflected in the huge inaugural crowds has not already been satisfied.

The long-term success of the event depends on casual Mid-Atlantic sports fans equating the race weekend to Preakness Week and viewing it as both a chance to show off Baltimore to an international audience and a great opportunity to party hearty all over the Inner Harbor area. It will be much harder to justify all the expense and inconvenience if it eventually devolves into a moderately attended festival for the fuel-injection set.

The Preakness is precedent. The survival of horse racing in Maryland depends almost entirely on the revenues generated by Preakness Week, and the six-figure crowd at Old Hilltop on the third Saturday in May is made up almost entirely of casual fans and infield partiers who rarely poke their heads into Pimlico the rest of the year. If the second jewel of horse racing's Triple Crown had to get by on the faithful railbirds who show up at Maryland tracks the other 51 weeks, it would probably have left Baltimore long ago.

It won't be easy to replicate that phenomenon in a downtown milieu with no betting windows and bottomless beer mugs, but the Grand Prix has a chance to carve out its own unique niche in the Baltimore sports market.

There are going to be more challenges ahead, but try to keep an open mind as the weekend unfolds and the Grand Prix of Baltimore tries to take advantage of something very rare -- a second chance to make a good first impression.

Read Peter Schmuck's blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at and listen when he hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090AM) and at

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