Gathering speed for its third year, the Grand Prix of Baltimore looks to be on track, but behind the scenes a host of challenges make it increasingly possible this may be open-wheel racing's last year in the Inner Harbor.
Schedule conflicts for the next two years, questions about local and state support, and the sport's flagging popularity threaten the Grand Prix's future.
Grand Prix and city officials acknowledged this week that they are struggling to find weekends in August 2014 and 2015 to accommodate the three-day racing festival. Next year, an Ohio State-Navy football game takes over M&T Bank Stadium on Labor Day weekend, and a big American Legion convention comes the following year. Finding another date that doesn't conflict with events at the city's two stadiums and convention center has proved difficult.
"It's been very, very challenging," said Kaliope Parthemos, deputy chief for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. "We have to take into consideration the Orioles' schedule, the Ravens and what works for IndyCar, which leaves very few dates, if any."
J.P. Grant, the Columbia financier who stepped in to save the race about 100 days before last year's Grand Prix, said he remains committed to establishing the event as a yearly tradition if it proves economically viable for organizers and the city. But the race still lacks a title sponsor and, he said, it needs more financial support from local businesses and both the city and state government.
He is treating last year's event — which lost several million dollars — as a "baseline." He expects to see higher revenue this year, based on ticket sales, but still expects to lose money.
"The race is viable, I think," Grant said. "But we've got to find the right weekend that works for everyone involved, and we've got to make sure the state and city and the business community are really behind this."
IndyCar, meanwhile, continues to struggle. The once-popular sport no longer draws the TV viewers and crowds for races that it did in its heyday. A succession of CEOs lends an appearance of instability, as does the impending loss of its longtime title sponsor Izod.
IndyCar, which like the race itself is striving to show it is a stable, worthy sponsorship investment, wants to release its schedule by the end of September. But Major League Baseball also will be finalizing its schedule about that time, making it difficult for the city to commit to a Grand Prix date.
The Orioles, whose representatives did not return emails seeking comment about the Grand Prix, prefer to be on the road — as they are this year — for an extended stretch around the Grand Prix because of the congestion the track causes near Camden Yards.
The Ravens, meanwhile, have said they would like to use their stadium for revenue-generation beyond their home schedule by attracting college football events such as the Ohio State-Navy game in 2014 or large summer concerts. They also host open practices and have exhibition games there in August.
Running the Grand Prix also requires use of the Baltimore Convention Center, which generally is booked several years in advance.
"I think the only word I can come up with for this is 'frustrating,'" said Councilman William H. Cole IV, who represents the downtown district and championed bringing the race to Baltimore. "This schedule issue, it's just another obstacle. I think everyone is trying to work on it, but whether it can be worked out, I don't know."
Rawlings-Blake, who did not make herself available to speak about the Grand Prix, remains an ardent Grand Prix supporter, Parthemos said.
Cole and Tom Noonan, the president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, also believe the race has delivered on the promises made by its founders in 2009.
Baltimore Racing Development, the original organizer, said the event would have an economic impact of $70 million a year. The reality has been more in the $45 million range, according to studies paid for by the city and race organizers.
"That's still a very large number," said Noonan. "Everybody talks about Otakon," the anime conference that recently announced it had outgrown Baltimore and would move in 2017, "and that has one-fourth the impact."
The Grand Prix was originally billed as a way to draw between 100,000 and 150,000 visitors to downtown on Labor Day weekend, typically a slow time for the tourism business. An economic impact study funded by Race On after last year's race found that 37 percent of the 130,000 spectators came from outside of the Baltimore area.
The city's hotels felt the boost. In the three years before the first race, hotels were 62 percent full, on average, on the Friday and Saturday before Labor Day, Noonan said. In 2011, that number hit 81 percent — with average room rates jumping to $208 from $146 in 2008. Last year, hotels had a 78 percent occupancy on Labor Day weekend and charged an average of $181 a night.