The goal for Race On is clear: To make the Grand Prix of Baltimore a long-term fixture, the company must generate significantly more money from Baltimore businesses and fans.
Enter Debbie Bell. The former director of corporate sales and sponsorship for the Orioles has been named Race On's vice president for sales and marketing, officially becoming the first full-time employee of the promotion company founded by financier J.P. Grant and construction executive Greg O'Neill. She's been on the job for about two weeks, spending much of her time trying to drum up enthusiasm — and persuade business owners to set aside some of their 2013 budget to help support the Labor Day weekend auto racing festival.
It's no secret that the Baltimore business community has been slow to embrace the Grand Prix of Baltimore because of the financial difficulties that plagued past organizers. What did you see in Race On that convinced you to take on the job of trying to win over sponsors and advertisers?
It was actually an easy decision. First of all, I genuinely believe the Grand Prix of Baltimore presented by SRT is a spectacular event and a tremendous asset for the city. I'm also amazed by the level of talent associated with the event. When I think about the 2012 Grand Prix and what the Race On and Andretti Sports Marketing team were able to accomplish in just over three months, it's clear that, with proper lead time, the Grand Prix will be the type of signature event that cities around the world long to host. J.P. Grant and Greg O'Neill have brought the level of stability to the Grand Prix that is needed to attract a wider array of sponsors and advertisers. The event saw strong corporate support in 2012 despite sponsors' having a very limited activation window. I have no doubt there is enormous potential to grow on that front moving forward.
I know you've been busy meeting with business leaders throughout town. What's the reception been like, and how confident are you that the race can generate more than the $800,000 or so it made in sponsorship revenue last year?
The response has been positive. The ability of the team to run the 2012 event so professionally with very little lead time has made a big impression on the people I met with during my first official week on the job. People recognize the unique opportunity the Grand Prix represents to connect with a very large, passionate audience here in Baltimore and beyond. I'm very optimistic about the future.
Some business owners feel the race is too intrusive to the downtown area. What have you said to try to convince them that the inconvenience is worth it?
From what I'm seeing, that opinion is beginning to change. Does the very nature of the Grand Prix present certain challenges? Of course. But every home game played by the Orioles or the Ravens presents its own set of issues. And so do other great events like the Baltimore Marathon and Sailabration. The Grand Prix of Baltimore presented by SRT is still a relatively new event, and there are unquestionably going to be some growing pains throughout its development. But the majority of the businesspeople I'm speaking with recognize and appreciate the potential of the Grand Prix to deliver great long-term dividends in return for short-term compromises.
What is the most important thing the Grand Prix of Baltimore organizers need to do to guarantee the race has a long future in Baltimore?
We need to continue to foster the growing support of area businesses and residents. Things are trending in the right direction, but we recognize there is always room for improvement. Fortunately, we have the right group in place to ensure that each year is better than the last.
The weeks leading up to next year's race will be hectic. If J.P. Grant happens to give you some time off after the Labor Day event, where would you go and what would you do?
Based on what I'm hearing from my colleagues, I'll be looking for the nearest hammock, where I can enjoy a cool drink and take a very long nap. If I can muster the energy, I'll look for a hammock in Key West or San Diego.
Title: Vice president of sales and marketing for Race On LLC
Past experience: Director, corporate sales and sponsorship for the Orioles; WUSA-TV, account executive; WBFF-TV, account executive; WMAR-TV, marketing director
Residence: Fells Point
Family: Four children — Lauren, Matthew, Jacob and Connor>