Grand Prix of Baltimore organizers bullish on race's future

Organizers say race will be more family friendly in 2013

May 31, 2013|By Luke Broadwater, The Baltimore Sun

As summer began last year, with the Grand Prix of Baltimore about three months away, organizers had sold no tickets. They had landed no sponsorships. And they hadn't put out a single advertisement.

Financier J.P. Grant and his group, Race On LLC, swooped in to save a troubled race — which one business had left in financial ruin and another failed to even launch — and pulled off what Grant called a "90-day miracle."

This year, they say they won't need divine intervention.

Organizers are bullish on sponsorships for the Labor Day weekend event and on tickets, which have been for sale since before Christmas, though they won't release exact numbers. They say they've learned from the rushed planning of last year's event and are introducing new features in what should prove a pivotal year for the race's future.

"We're literally four months ahead of last year," said Tim Mayer, general manager of the Grand Prix of Baltimore. "This time last year, I hadn't even said yes to being a part of the race."

In another change this year, organizers say they're making a concerted push to attract parents with children to a more family-friendly event.

"We're making sure the kids have a wonderful experience," said Debbie Bell, the race's vice president of sales and marketing.

Race organizers are letting children 12 and under in for free, if accompanied by an adult, compared to the $35 price for all attendees last year. They're moving the "Family Fun Zone" inside the air-conditioned Baltimore Convention Center and expanding the activities there. The zone will feature a rock-climbing wall, moon bounce, indoor go-kart track and a pinewood derby race for Boy Scouts, organizers said.

"Last year, we were 100 percent focused on getting the race put on," Mayer said. "Now we're absolutely focused on increasing the value for families."

But Mayer said organizers also are making changes for adults. They're improving the beer garden, hoping to host the "World's Largest Crab Feast" and booking better-known bands, he said, though he wouldn't disclose names.

"They're not Justin Bieber, but they're bands music fans will have heard of," Mayer said.

Matt Breeden, IndyCar's vice president of business affairs, said the racing company expects big results from the Baltimore event and is considering new ways to promote the race to fans.

"If you give someone an entire year to plan, you'll naturally going to have a better event," he said. "It's a great race for us. The economic impact reports don't lie. It could potentially be one of the signature events for the season."

But the race still has some detractors.

David C. Troy, a software developer from Bolton Hill who filed a lawsuit in 2011 in a failed attempt to stop Grand Prix organizers from cutting down city trees to clear sight lines for fans, said the race is likely more stable than in previous years, but he questioned why organizers won't be more transparent about their finances, given they benefit from city services.

They're being more sensitive to issues the community cares about, such as cutting down trees," Troy said. "At the same time, you have to wonder: Is this the best idea? This particular event was shoved down everybody's throat. There are a lot of public dollars that went into this. Is it a good investment? It would be easier to get excited about it if we could see some financial statements."

Baltimore organizers say they have sought advice from the Greater Baltimore Committee, which advised them to start selling tickets for hospitality tents to smaller businesses. Mayer said the event will sell hospitality tickets to groups of 20 this year.

Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, an organization of business and civic leaders, said the larger tents provide a good value but may be too expensive for some.

"There are many companies who would like to entertain their customers and vendors, and the prices of the largest tents alone don't fit their budgets," Fry said. "We are communicating with those in the business community to urge them to support the race."

Brian McComas, owner of Ryleigh's Oyster restaurant and president of the Federal Hill Hospitality Association, said the organization is working to change perceptions in the neighborhood that the race is an inconvenience and a traffic nightmare. His business saw a spike in customers both of the last two Labor Day weekends compared with previous years.

"Federal Hill is one of the neighborhoods where people were complaining about the race. We're trying to change that," McComas said.

The association, which is considering purchasing a tent, plans to host a "Cars and Bars" event, featuring high-performance automobiles, such as a new-model McLaren.

"We're going to line Cross Street with cars and make it a cocktail party," McComas said.

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