Race On officials optimistic as third Grand Prix arrives

Organizers say tickets sales for Grand Prix of Baltimore remain strong

  • Race car driver Ryan Hunter-Reay leads the pack, including Ryan Briscoe (2) in the final lap of the Grand Prix of Baltimore in Baltimore, Maryland on Sunday, September 2, 2012.
Race car driver Ryan Hunter-Reay leads the pack, including… (Karl Merton Ferron / MCT )
August 30, 2013|By Chris Korman, The Baltimore Sun

In the command center of the Grand Prix of Baltimore, Tim Mayer, the race's general manager, fielded a few phone calls, answering a couple of questions. But that was it.

Preparations for the Grand Prix were running several hours ahead of schedule the day before Friday's qualifying races. In the cavernous room — Mayer asked that its location not be divulged — police and others studied 15 big-screen televisions showing camera feeds and maps.

"It's not like it was last year," he said. "That we did with sheer energy, breakneck until the very end."

Now in its third year, the three-day racing festival begins at 8 a.m. Friday with practices for the various circuits that will race Saturday and Sunday. Ticket sales remain on pace, Mayer said, without elaborating. Seats are available; Race On, the event organizer, said it expects a large walk-up crowd, especially if there's no rain in the forecast.

"A lot of our final push is going to depend on what people see when they turn on the television," Mayer said.

Most forecasters are calling for a chance of thunderstorms Sunday, during the weekend's premier event, an IndyCar race. Race On purchased "rain insurance," but it will kick in only if there's a "deluge," Mayer said.

Rain or not, residents and businesses around downtown are coping with the inconvenience of a 2.4-mile, high-speed racetrack occupying critical crossroads around the Inner Harbor. Traffic was snarled Thursday. Some residents left town, some businesses shut down, but many others have embraced the racing festival.

Mayer has led Race On's efforts to become a better neighbor. He largely devised a way to shorten the time needed to build the track from more than a month to 21 days in a way that limited road closures. His goal this year is to show that the race can appeal to racing fans as well as families and those who enjoy a festive atmosphere. He has emphasized adding entertainment and amenities for a more diverse crowd while making the operation less inconvenient for the city around it.

But by Thursday morning's rush hour, the track's impact was undeniable. Cars coming into the city off Interstate 95 immediately got bogged down in traffic. It took Pavan Bhatia more than an hour to reach the California Tortilla restaurant he owns on Pratt Street from the highway.

Bhatia refused to pay the $5,000 race organizers wanted in order to give his patrons a clear view of the race. A blue scrim covered the fence outside his courtyard.

"It's just not worth the investment," he said. "People are coming for the race, not to spend here."

He'd had high hopes for the race the first year, projecting sales of $65,000, which is what he usually does during a large convention like Otakon. But revenue fell short and then plummeted more than 50 percent last year.

The Grand Prix has been a boon, however, to the nearby Pratt Street Ale House, which happily paid for a view of the race, said general manager Jorbie Clark.

"We're all for it," Clark said. "To have an event that is watched around the world on what would be a slow weekend, I don't get all the negativity about it. You've got to have things like this if you want your city to be vibrant for the people and businesses."

Lana Jo Hill, an Upper Fells Point resident who works in Federal Hill, said the race simply causes too much disruption in the city. Her commute home Thursday took 40 minutes, and the race is impossible to escape.

"It doesn't matter where you go in the city," she said. "Head over to Canton, and it still sounds like there's a hive of angry bees nearby."

Many of the 1,271 workers at T. Rowe Price's corporate headquarters on East Pratt Street will work elsewhere Friday, though the office will be open for those who want to come in, said Brian Lewbart, a spokesman for the investment management firm.

"We've offered people flexible work arrangements to work remotely, and for many people that means from home," Lewbart said.

Others will work at the company's Owings Mills campus or at a disaster recovery center in Linthicum that will open Friday to accommodate workers. The backup center is reserved for emergencies or occasions such as the race, he said.

"I think it's safe to say the majority of associates will not be working in the office, and that has as much to do with location, being literally right on the course and the noise of the cars, as with commuting and road closures," Lewbart said. "We literally front the course."

Energy supplier Constellation, owned by Chicago-based Exelon, also is keeping its downtown offices open, but "employees have been advised to discuss alternative work arrangements with their supervisors as necessary," spokeswoman Kelly Biemer said in an email.

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