Green my ride: One of the cars at this weekend's Grand Prix… (Todd Warshaw/Getty Images )
So racing returns to downtown streets today, as the Grand Prix of Baltimore takes over the Inner Harbor and Camden Yards through Sunday.
The new organizers of the revived racing festival have managed to avoid the tempest over tree removal that dogged the runup to last year's inaugural event. But they've also dropped any pretense of reducing or mitigating the noise, unfiltered racecar exhaust and other environmental impacts of the extravaganza.
Promoters of last year's Baltimore Grand Prix, it should be recalled, pledged to make it the "greenest Grand Prix ever." They said they'd line the course with hundreds of recycling bins, serve drinks in biodegradable cups, put up a few solar-powered lights, and encourage fans to take public transit or even bike downtown to reduce traffic congestion and pollution.
Those steps were only the beginning, the promoters said. They vowed to make the event "carbon neutral" and "zero net waste" by its fifth annual running in 2015.
The weeks leading up to the race were marred, however, by a furor over the removal of dozens of trees along the race course to make way for grandstands and improve fans' view of the speeding cars. The promoters eventually promised to plant nearly 200 trees all through downtown, far more than they cut down, and to provide another 5,000 saplings to green up other parts of the city.
The first race's promoters never fulfilled their tree-planting pledge, just as they left the city and a raft of creditors unpaid in the wake of an event that proved to be highly popular but a financial failure. The city wound up planting the promised trees downtown at taxpayer expense.
The new race team, installed by City Hall after forcing out the originial promoters, has focused on running a business-like operation and steering clear of the problems of their predecessors. The head of the new team, Columbia financier J.P. Grant, did make a donation to partially reimburse the city for the costs of its tree planting.
But otherwise, RaceOn Baltimore, the new team, has made no claims or pledges to run the greenest Grand Prix, saying that with only about three months to organize the event after being tapped by City Hall to take it over, they had to focus on the basics for now.
"We are very interested in sustainability," race spokesman Jade Gurss said in an email. With so little time to prepare, though, he said the organizers "were forced to focus entirely on the absolutely essential elements," such as constructing the track with the least disruption possible to downtown traffic, selling tickets and the like.
"Our mantra this year is 'Baltimore is open for business,' and we wanted to have the least possible impact on traffic for vehicles and pedestrians throughout the construction of the track and the event itself," the spokesman said. Bike racks are set up near entries to the racing venue, he noted, and organizers have worked to promote transit access to the event.
All the open-wheeled Indy cars racing this weekend will be burning E85 ethanol, the same fuel motorists can get at gas stations, Gurss noted. And the festival does again feature the American LeMans Series, which promotes "green racing" by having cars and drivers compete not just to cross the finish line first but to do it with the least greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impact. Race teams strive to get maximum fuel efficiency with alternative fuels and hybrid engines, among other things.
RaceOn Baltimore's spokesman didn't rule out trying to shrink the race's environmental impact in future years, assuming it survives this one. Ticket sales reportedly have been light.
"Given a full year to prepare ... we are going to be more able to look at our options and efforts in that area," Gurss said.
The calmer runup has quieted race critics somewhat, but hasn't exactly won them over.
"It looks like they have done things more professionally this year, and I think that's great, and I hope the race goes well," said David Troy, the software developer who organized a petition drive and went to court in a futile effort to halt the tree removal last year.
But Troy said he and otheres remain concerned about the race's impact, particularly the noise generated by the speeding cars, which he noted will be running past a retirement home on Light Street. He said he believed noise levels at last year's races must have exceeded legal limits.
There are other things the city could do to draw visitors downtown that aren't as disruptive, Troy said in an email exchange, such as the Sailabration held earlier this year. Others have suggested staging a bicycle race instead, he added.
"It would be a green thing to do and so much more progressive," Troy concluded. "This thing is backward looking, but a bike race would be forward-looking."