By Julie Scharper and Chris Korman, The Baltimore Sun
7:48 PM CDT, September 2, 2012
Ryan Hunter-Reay won the second Grand Prix of Baltimore, a sloppy race full of fits and starts run before a diminished crowd.
Organizers, though, came away convinced that this year's hastily planned event proved an IndyCar race can work downtown.
"This is a 90-day miracle," said J.P. Grant, the local financier who swept in three months ago to take over the race following the collapse of two previous organizers. "Our goal was to put on a race we could handle ourselves."
IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard praised Grant's work and said he was pleased with the crowd and quality of the race, despite scattered showers that helped result in nine caution flags and a number of restarts on the track. He would not guarantee a return, though, as he is still finalizing next year's schedule; that includes negotiating how much Grant's company, Race On, will have to pay.
"Baltimore has the potential to be in the top three races of the year," he said.
Race On refused to discuss ticket sales, as did Andretti Sports Marketing, which handled promotion. Representatives for the Baltimore police and fire departments also said they would not comment on the size of the crowd.
Areas choked with fans last year were more open, though, and grandstands were slow to fill.
Marie-Pierre Pluvinage, a Loyola grad from Bethesda, made the trip after hearing good things about last year's event.
"It's a perfect showcase for Baltimore," she said. "It's the sort of thing the city needs."
Gesturing toward the sparse crowds on Pratt Street sidewalks inside the course, she said promoters failed to spread the word.
"I didn't hear much about it," she said. "They had that turmoil leading up to it. They should give it one more shot."
Inside the Kona Grill on East Pratt Street, crowds came more intermittently than they did a year ago. General manager Mark Underwood said the company set sales records last Labor Day weekend.
"There's more ebb and flow this year," he said.
Underwood said any extra revenue earned this weekend will replace money lost while the path to the restaurant was obscured by fences for much of August.
This year, fewer vendors lined the streets inside the track, and there were not as many concerts planned. But Bill Hoffman, a truck driver from Woodbridge, Va., said the differences were "subtle."
"There are still things to keep the casual fans involved," he said. "True fans from up-and-down the Eastern seaboard, they'll come no matter what."
Kevin Massey walked over from Canton again this year. Though he is not a racing fan, he feels the Grand Prix can be a boon for the city's economy and reputation.
"I understand it clogs things up a bit," he said. "But it's an amazing thing. This is a major event. "
Some fans said they preferred this year's race because it was less crowded, with shorter lines for concessions and no back-ups at pedestrian bridges over the track.
"I kind of enjoy the crowd the way it is," said Frances Cadden, a marine engineer from Towson. "It's a really light crowd compared to last year."
His friend Ken Kocun, a McCormick employee from Towson, said he was "disappointed" by the blue screens blocking views of the track throughout much of the festival area. The screens prevented fans from watching the race when they were not in the grandstands or designated general admission viewing areas.
"I don't mind them on the outside," blocking views for people without tickets, he said. "But I don't like them on the inside."
Hundreds of fans lingered just outside the race footprint and managed to find spots where the blue scrim did not obscure their view. Parkville residents Tony Lorber and his son, Bart Lorber, watched the race from the patio of the Pratt Street Ale House, where the managers had secured unobstructed views of the course by paying organizers a $5,000 fee.
"They'll make the $5,000 back easily," said Tony Lorber, who works in solar power.
"We didn't have to buy tickets and this a great way to watch it," said Bart Lorber, an Exelon Corp. employee.
The Lorbers said they were racing fans, although they preferred NASCAR to IndyCar. This year's event drew a larger percentage of serious racing fans than last.
"We saw people who had no idea last year," Tony Lorber said.
Trouble for Baltimore Racing Development, which conceived and ran the inaugural race, began after the happy crowds left the city. They struggled to pay debts, and still owe the city $750,000 for city services such as police and fire department support. Race On made a point of pre-paying many of those fees, or having admissions and amusement taxes from the race weekend put in escrow accounts. General manager Tim Mayer said attendance would not be an important benchmark; emphasizing instead the establishment of a more professional aura.
"We're happy the neighbors have been patient," said Kaliope Parthemos, the city's deputy chief for economic development. "The first year there were bumps in the road, and the second year is getting better and better."
Councilman William H. Cole IV, who represents the downtown area, said he walked through surrounding neighborhoods Saturday night and found more race fans had left the track to patronize local businesses. Mayer said several adjustments were made to the race schedule and footprint to ensure visitors have the time and ability to see other parts of the city.
He and Grant say they will now re-approach local and national businesses, hoping to procure sponsorship deals that will help them better plan and promote the 2013 event.
"This was a worst case scenario," Grant said of the truncated timeline. "We can build from this."