Grand Prix survival depends on convincing fans, businesses it is worth the trouble

Though new race organizers have focused on being 'good neighbors,' tension remains after difficult first race

September 01, 2012|By Julie Scharper and Chris Korman, The Baltimore Sun

Tony Assadi shakes his head as he looks out over the racetrack for the second Grand Prix of Baltimore, which zooms past his Luna Del Sea restaurant and its outside patio on West Pratt Street.

He and his patrons have a clear view — no blue screen blocks the sightline to the street-turned-course. But for that privilege, he signed a contract and was charged $5,000 by race organizers.

"I paid it," he said. "But I didn't feel comfortable. It felt like I was paying a bribe."

As the weekend of racing heads toward the finish line today, the stability and sustainability of the event remains unclear. Tens of thousands of fans packed downtown streets to watch the first two days of the festival, as they did last year, and drivers, though they griped about the bumpy track, once again marveled at the crowds.

But Assadi's concerns echo a larger theme: Does the boost to tourism and business outweigh the extensive and intrusive construction that comes with hosting the event? How deep will organizers need to reach into their pockets to keep the race going? The race's new organizers say they have focused on making the event integrate more seamlessly with the city, but tension still exists.

"These are the key metrics," said Tim Mayer, pegged by race promoter and IndyCar legend Michael Andretti to "quarterback" the group's efforts. "Can we be good neighbors? Can we be good business people? Can we stabilize this thing? Can we make sure traffic flows? Those are the kind of things we're building on, because as we go on with this ... we've got to make people see we're good for the city."

He also said that Race On Baltimore would judge the success of the race not on attendance or money made — they expect to operate at a loss — but by response from the city's citizens and business owners. The Orioles have already praised the group for working to keep the area around Camden Yards tidy and accessible.

While Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake proclaimed the Grand Prix weekend a success immediately after last year's event, race organizers failed to pay their debts to vendors, investors, the city and state agencies. After denying reports that the organizers were financially unstable in the months leading up the race, Rawlings-Blake's administration later publicly severed ties with the racing team, Baltimore Racing Development.

In February, her administration assured residents that they had found a stable and professional group to take over the race. But the second group, Downforce Baltimore, fell apart before making any progress on the event.

J.P. Grant, a Columbia-based investor who has financed dozens of city contracts, took over about three months ago. Grant, one of Rawlings-Blake's top campaign donors, partnered with contractor Greg O'Neill to form Race On Baltimore — the name chosen to quell rumors that IndyCar would not return.

The team hired racing legend Andretti's firm to promote the race and scrambled to organize a stripped-down festival while fighting perceptions that the race was doomed or would again be revealed as a financial liability for the city.

Rawlings-Blake said she marvels at the speed with which they've put together the race.

"You can't plan a bar mitzvah in 90 days, and they've planned a world-class event," she said.

Defining success

Certainly IndyCar insiders crave stability, and CEO Randy Bernard said Race On must make good on its financial agreements before the circuit can commit to returning. But racing insiders are also looking for evidence of a long-term future that fits with their own goals, mainly regaining fans and enticing national sponsors.

"A successful race looks like the first year in Baltimore did: a big crowd, lots of enthusiasm, a gangbusters event," said Robin Miller, a racing analyst for the SPEED channel. "But then the bottom line came out. Street races are the toughest thing in the world because they're so expensive."

Bernard has hopes of increasing the IndyCar schedule to expand its reach and fulfill television deals. He's seen street races fizzle in other cities, though, and is not ready to declare Baltimore a mainstay.

"I've learned from racing that you've got to be a realist," said Bernard, who was chosen to try to ignite IndyCar's resurgence after building the Pro Bull Riding Tour. "Expect the unexpected. You just can't make a decision until you see how it plays out."

This group's challenge, he said, could not be clearer: "They have to succeed everywhere they failed last year." He said he has been impressed with Grant's organization so far.

Grant, who has invested a good deal of his own money in the race this year, is optimistic that an influx of sponsorship dollars will help the event turn a profit in the future.

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