Seconds before the green flag drops on the inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix, one of the most famous female athletes on earth will steer her bright-lime-and-black race car onto Pratt Street, then hit the gas.
As Danica Patrick crosses the start line, she'll flatten her size-seven right foot onto the pedal, propelling her No. 7 GoDaddy.com Indy car to speeds most of us only fantasize about while in bumper to bumper Beltway traffic.
Turning onto Light Street, Patrick's 3.5-liter, eight-cylinder engine will slingshot her down the straightaway at 180 miles per hour, the roar of her vehicle eclipsing an eardrum-rattling 105 decibels. Wondering how loud that is? Snuggle up to a jackhammer for a few minutes.
Once the cars streak toward Federal Hill, it won't take them long to get there. Indy cars can go from zero to 100 mph (and back to zero) in just five seconds. They produce 5,000 pounds of force at 220 mph, enough to allow the car to run upside down if that speed is maintained.
For spectators it's a visceral, exhilarating cocktail of speed and sound that rumbles through the veins.
With the eyes of tens of thousands of fans lining the course—and millions more watching live on national and international TV—Patrick and her competitors will traverse the Inner Harbor's maze of streets unimpeded by clueless tourists in minivans, wayward pedestrians, and, perhaps, most miraculously, potholes.
But the road from concept to reality hasn't always been smooth for the Baltimore Grand Prix, the Labor Day Weekend motor sports festival—highlighted by an IndyCar Series race—that promoters claim could pump as much as $70 million into the region.
Establishing an event that costs millions to produce and relies heavily on municipal cooperation would be dicey under any circumstances. Doing so in the midst of a still sputtering economy, when that event is a niche car race and that city is Baltimore could be described as . . . well, let's let the man driving the effort speak for himself.
"Frankly, I thought it was kind of crazy to bring a street race to Baltimore," says Jay Davidson, CEO of Baltimore Racing Development (BRD), the company staging the Grand Prix. "It's a motorsports event, it seems kind of radical to be in the city. But the more I saw how INDYCAR was interested in Baltimore, the more interested I got. I think when people see it, nine out of 10 will like it."
But in the months leading up to the race, Grand Prix-related road repaving and curb reconfiguration on major thoroughfares including Conway and Pratt Streets began seriously irritating many white-knuckled commuters snarled in downtown traffic. As temperatures rose and speeds slowed, people began wondering (and grumbling): Will the payoff be worth the price?
"Not to me," Locust Point resident Stuart Satosky said as he took respite at Nick's in Cross Street Market on a June day. "Trying to get across town is a real nightmare. It's hard for me to imagine that all the inconveniences will be worth it. I'm a taxpayer. How am I going to reap the benefits of this supposed windfall?"
As Davidson and other BRD investors have learned from INDYCAR drivers, there's seldom reward without risk. The group and two intrepid politicians—Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and City Councilman William H. Cole IV—are convinced that despite short-term hassles the Grand Prix can be a long-term winner by making Baltimore a preeminent Labor Day destination, whether you're a gearhead or not.
They've laid their cars—and quite a bit of cash (upwards of $10 million)—on the table. At this point, just one thing is clear: Like the seemingly far-off blur of a race car, the Grand Prix will be here—and gone—before we know it. Only time will tell if we'll be glad it came.
Men being men, it wasn't long after the invention of the automobile that thrill seekers started racing them. The first known U.S. contest was held in Chicago in the mid 1890s, and the earliest major road race was the 1904 Vanderbilt Cup on the dirt country roads of Long Island.
The Indianapolis 500 debuted a century ago with open-wheel race cars (so-called because their tires are exposed to the elements) that sped up to 88 mph.
The championship circuit that resembles today's INDYCAR, the country's preeminent open-wheel racing series, emerged in the mid 1960s, and 1975 brought the first Long Beach Grand Prix.
Considered the "grandfather of road races," the California event is a model Baltimore hopes to emulate.
"The Long Beach Grand Prix has been a boon to our city," says Bob Maguglin, director of public relations for the Long Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. "During race weekend, all of our downtown hotels sell out, and our airport hotels and many properties in surrounding cities experience increased occupancy."
The race's annual economic impact is about $35 million, the Long Beach Press-Telegram reported in February.
That's a tantalizing number and the main reason talk of a Baltimore car race has lingered since at least the 1980s. Even William Donald Schaefer, legend has it, once floated the idea.
It wouldn't have come to fruition without the work of two men: Steven Wehner and Councilman William H. Cole IV. Wehner, a Baltimore native and veteran businessman who reportedly lives in Martha's Vineyard, couldn't be reached for comment (and no longer is involved with BRD). But Cole vividly remembers the details of their first meeting over lunch at City Café.
"I just knew he wanted to do a major downtown attraction, so I'm thinking he wants to open a restaurant," Cole recalls. "He said, 'I would like to bring Indy racing to downtown Baltimore.' I did what any sane person would do: I laughed. I said it sounds like a great idea, I just don't think it's humanly possible."
Before even considering the idea, Cole wanted assurances that the sport was committed to the city.
"I'm not going to go out on a limb unless I know for certain that it's feasible and that this racing league actually does want to come to Baltimore," he says. "I'm not doing a Field of Dreams, 'Build it and they will come.'"
But Wehner remained persistent, eventually setting up a meeting around Thanksgiving 2008 at Visit Baltimore's offices on Light Street. Several high-ranking INDYCAR officials were there, as was legendary two-time Indy 500 champion Al Unser Jr., a paid consultant for BRD.
"[Unser] looked across the table at me and said, 'Councilman, I think that Baltimore could be a premier location for our series. I think you could be like Long Beach,'" Cole says. "I had done enough homework to know that if you were going to try to replicate a model you wanted to replicate Long Beach. One-hundred seventy-five thousand [fans] who spend ridiculous amounts of money in that city over a three-day weekend. When you hear Al Unser Jr. say, 'I think Baltimore could rival Long Beach,' you think, 'This is real.'"
A civil war of sorts tore open-wheel racing apart in the mid 1990s, when the sport fractured into rival series. Into the wedge drove Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, and the good-old boys of NASCAR—a completely separate racing circuit with different cars, fans, sponsors, and mostly different drivers.
"Open-wheel racing in the U.S. has been down for a long time since the well-documented split," says Philip Evers, a professor in the sports management fellows program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. "There certainly is interest in auto racing in the U.S., but NASCAR filled that gap. Open-wheel racing has been trying to make inroads ever since."
The infighting ceased in 2008, and INDYCAR refocused on broadening its appeal.
"It's no secret that INDYCAR wanted to have another market on the East Coast," INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard says. "Baltimore has a lot of value. We think it can be one of the most beautiful road courses that we have."
So do the two dozen investors (17 of whom are from the Baltimore-Washington area) who formed BRD in 2008.
"The harbor is going to be a beautiful backdrop for a grand prix, but more important, frankly, is the demographic," Davidson says. "The series was looking for something in the Mid-Atlantic. Obviously, they'd love to shut down Manhattan, but they'll probably never do that. Philadelphia, the streets are very narrow. D.C., with the national security concerns, makes it a challenge. When you look at the fact that we have the stadiums, the harbor, and the convention center all within our compounds for a track, this is a very strong [site]."
Davidson, a "recovering corporate attorney," got involved in the project through his wife, Elizabeth, a graphic designer working with the group. A football player at Gilman and then Princeton—where he roomed with Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett—Davidson became president of BRD in February 2010.
"I know Baltimore, like every major city, has its problems, but it also has a lot of wonderful things," he says. "I'm so tired of people bringing up The Wire or The Corner. It's shaping their view of Baltimore. This is not the antidote for all that. I get it. [But] we're putting a hell of a lot into this, and we wouldn't be doing this if we didn't think this was going to be a great thing for Baltimore."
The 43-year-old Davidson knew next to nothing about motorsports before attending his first race, the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix, in 2008. He was blown away by the speed and sound of the cars and the sophistication of the crowd, but his first Motor City race was to be his last. It hasn't been held since.
For every Long Beach there are multiple Detroits, road races that, for a variety of reasons, fail. The tallest tombstone in this graveyard—which includes Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, and Houston—belongs to Washington, D.C.
The inaugural—and final—Cadillac Grand Prix of Washington drew an estimated 70,000 fans over three days in July 2002, but in true Washington form, it was shrouded in controversy. A temporary racetrack was built near RFK Stadium over the vociferous objections of many nearby residents, some of whose homes sat just 150 feet away.
Cost overruns spilled into the millions, the promoters were fined for noise violations, and allegations of abuse of power were bandied about in the City Council.
In August 2002, Washington Post columnist Colbert King blasted then-D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams for "the noisy, noxious-fume-spewing Cadillac Grand Prix that was insensitively and stealthily imposed on a stable, predominantly black Northeast Washington neighborhood over the residents' strong objections."
The race crashed and burned.
"We really took that as a how not to," Davidson says. "It was a disaster in how they interacted—or failed to interact—with the communities that surrounded the course."
That was a mistake BRD and Councilman Cole vowed not to make.
Over the past two years, Cole and Davidson have spent more than 50 days in hotel conference rooms, BRD's Camden Yards' offices, and twice even at popular Federal Hill bar Mother's (owner Dave Rather is a BRD investor), holding race-impact meetings and visiting with community associations.
"First and foremost, I needed to know if the neighbors would buy into it," Cole says. "It's not worth doing if you're only going to do it for one year, and then it goes away. So I started quietly going and talking to some neighbors, friends, and community association leaders and I said, 'What do you think about this?'"
He was shocked to discover that almost everyone he spoke with supported the idea.
Daniel Bachmann is president of the Otterbein Community Association, the neighborhood that sits just south of the course.
"Every one of the concerns they addressed to pretty much everybody's satisfaction," he says. "The sound, the vibration, the number of people, security, parking. From the people I've spoken to, probably 90 percent of the neighborhood is for it. I've only heard a few folks saying I'm leaving town that weekend, I don't want to deal with the traffic and crowds."
Financed in part by a loan from Maryland's Department of Business and Economic Development, BRD conducted a study that predicted the race could bring 100,000 visitors and have an economic impact of $50-70 million for the city and surrounding counties.
Those numbers—which Cole says have been reviewed by a number of City agencies—as well as the community's support piqued Rawlings-Blake's interest.
"I wanted to make sure that the city was directly benefiting from the event," Rawlings-Blake says. "Once I saw that the financing model was strong and feasible, I knew it was something that we could get behind."
In May 2010, the Board of Estimates (armed with a letter of support from each of the four community associations surrounding the course), approved a five-year agreement with BRD and INDYCAR, creating the Baltimore Grand Prix.
The city expects to generate $11 million over the five years in direct tax revenue from hotel rooms, parking, and each ticket sold. It also will receive $250,000 per year from BRD. Its only financial obligation was the repaving of 8.7 lane miles of downtown roads, at a cost of $7.75 million. (Indy cars sit just one inch off the ground, and they zoom through the streets with such force that about 150 manhole covers on the course had to be welded down.)
Federal highway funds were secured for $5 million of the work, with the remaining $2.75 million coming from repayable state grants. The money could not have been used for anything other than street improvements, said Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for the Mayor.
City officials insist that Pratt, Light, and other downtown streets needed to be repaved anyway. In accordance with the work, the city and utility companies are upgrading and repairing water and gas lines under the roads.
But even the race's staunchest supporters acknowledge that the work didn't have to be done all at once. The first plot of old pavement was cracked last August and, as anyone who's tried to navigate downtown knows, the project has inflicted some major pains.
"If you are coming in on the wrong day at the wrong time, then you're going to come in a little grumpy—and late," says Judi DiGioia, a sales and marketing manager who works downtown, at Morton's The Steakhouse. "When Conway was shut down that was a big detriment to us. But I'm already booking business for that weekend, and Labor Day usually is a very quiet time. I think it has the potential to be very worth it. Ask me on September 6."
Even Cole grew tired of the ubiquitous orange-and-white-striped cones and barrels, each one standing like a mini monument to gridlock. Gas leaks under Light Street caused the work to stretch at least a month past schedule, City transportation officials said, making traffic maddeningly unpredictable.
"It's been a little bit frustrating," Cole says. "We didn't see that coming. The irony is Pratt Street has gone on a little bit longer because of the [handicapped] compliant ramps. Having an [Americans with Disabilities Act] compliant corridor in the heart of your tourist district is probably not a bad outcome. At the end of the day, the worst-case scenario is that we end up with some freshly resurfaced roads in downtown Baltimore."
Meanwhile, BRD was dealing with problems of its own. In October, the Maryland Stadium Authority restructured a payment plan for the almost $2 million BRD owes it for the installation of a concrete jack strip on pit row on the east side of the Camden Yards warehouse, necessary because INDYCAR jacks, which pop out of the bottom of the cars, would dig right into asphalt.
In November, the group parted ways with well-respected Maroon PR, due to what its president John Maroon called "philosophical differences of opinion on how best to work with the media."
Then there's the matter of sponsors. At press time, the race was still without a title one, though Davidson says there have been offers. A title sponsor typically comprises about 40 percent of all sponsorship revenue, which is about 20 percent of overall revenue. (Ticket sales are 60 percent; hospitality, food, and beverage the other 20.)
"We have a number and a kind of partner that we want that would be ideal, but we're not giving it away," Davidson says. "We're going to be fine without it in year one if we have to go that route. We don't want to set a precedent that's too low."
Other sponsorship deals, he says, started out slow but have been "catching up."
Evers, the Maryland professor, thinks corporations are hesitant to attach their names to a first-year event with no guarantee of success.
Yet fan interest has been strong. By July 6, more than 50,000 tickets were sold to buyers from 45 states and six countries. Just seven of 84 hospitality suites remained available.
"The ticket sales blew us away," Davidson says. "We sold about 10,000 tickets on the first day, so many that our server crashed. Typically, about 60 percent of your ticket sales occur in the last six weeks of an event like this, so we're feeling very strong about that."
Many of those out-of-towners started booking hotel rooms the day the race officially was announced. Labor Day weekend traditionally is "very slow" for city hotels, says Tom Noonan, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore. He anticipates the occupancy rate this year will exceed 90 percent each night, significantly higher than the previous three-year average. Many hotels have raised rates and instituted two-day minimums.
"Typically, we don't see much movement for Labor Day until 30 days out, but this year, it was a year out," says John Stowell, director of sales and marketing for the InterContinental Harbor Court Hotel. "We are expecting to sell out [that weekend]."
Sports-business experts like Evers and Thomas Rhoads, associate professor of economics at Towson University, caution that while the race certainly will draw people to the city, it also may keep others away.
"There will be many people that would normally spend time and money in the Inner Harbor that weekend who will not make the trip because it will be too crowded," Rhoads says. "So I would expect the economic impact to be less than the estimates I've seen."
Sunday's IndyCar Series race, the focal point of the Grand Prix weekend, will be televised live on Versus (the NBC-owned global sports network) and broadcast to 200 countries. It's the culmination of three days of activities organizers hope will attract a diverse crowd.
"If we're just successful with endemic racing fans, we'll fail," Davidson says.
Throughout the weekend, which features five races, fans can visit an interactive racing area, family-fun section, and party zone. Friday's festivities include a 5k run on the track, live music, INDYCAR qualifying and practice, and qualifying for Saturday's American Le Mans Series race, which pits sports cars like Porsches and Ferraris against one another. The race will be broadcast Sunday at 4 p.m. on ABC. Television exposure of the non-crime-drama variety was a big carrot for the Mayor and others, who covet the national and international attention it will bring to the city.
"They're going to get to showcase their city, and it's a beautiful one," Unser says. "You've got the Orioles' stadium right there, you've got the harbor right there. These are anchors. From an overhead shot and from all the different angles the cameras are going to produce and the fans are going to get to choose from, it really is special and very unique."
But ask even the most die-hard racing fan and they'll tell you the thrill of the sport doesn't fully translate on TV. Organizers are betting that once fans feel the vibrations, inhale the burning rubber, and witness the goose bump-inducing speed in person, they'll be hooked.
"It's a very sexy sport," says Rawlings-Blake, whose first race was the 2010 Indy 500, the crown jewel in the INDYCAR Series. "There are a lot of handsome drivers and a lot of beautiful women that walk around with them. It was loud, it was fast, it was fun. They have dedicated fans, they set up camp, they're in the restaurants, they're in the hotels. I had absolutely no idea of the potential economic impact, and it's huge. I can't wait."
Years of study and debate, meetings and deal-making, paving projects, and traffic jams will be memories come Sunday evening. As General Colin Powell crowns the inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix champion, the city will begin to assess whether one of its biggest gambles has paid off.
"I say to everybody, 'I'm not a fan of auto racing, I'm a fan of what it can do to Baltimore,'" Cole says. "If we're ever going to change as a city, at some point we have to get out of this minor-league mentality. There are still people that don't believe we should have built [Harborplace]. I have a couple of friends that still don't believe Oriole Park was worth building. It's about trying."
Whether the Grand Prix becomes a Baltimore sporting staple—Preakness with more horsepower—or is a colossal wreck, the cars and crowds are coming.