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The Interview: Andretti marketing officer gears up for Grand Prix

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Towson native and racing executive JF Thormann saw two of his drivers finish in the Top 10 of the Baltimore Grand Prix's main race last year.

This year, Thormann — the executive vice president and chief operating officer of Andretti Autosport — will continue to help make winners of Andretti Autosport's drivers. But as an officer of a related company, Andretti Sports Marketing, he will also have a role in making the Labor Day racing festival a success overall.

Andretti Sports Marketing was hired by Race On LLC — a company headed by two local businessmen, financier J.P. Grant and contractor Greg O'Neill — to organize the second Grand Prix of Baltimore, after the operator of last year's race failed to pay its bills.

The Baltimore Sun recently talked with Thormann, 56, about the forthcoming event.

What does JF stand for?

That's not something I divulge too often, but it stands for Jean-Francois. My parents were French and they gave me a French name. Though everybody in school … knew me as John. I had aspirations of being a racer one day and I thought, "Well, if I go international, I'll race with my real name, with my birth name." I had "JF" on my helmet and they just started calling me JF.

How did you meet Michael Andretti, the principal of Andretti Autosport and Andretti Sports Marketing?

I was working at a racing school in the Poconos, the Bertil Roos School of Motor Racing. I had just graduated from Towson University. … My mom and dad weren't too high on me becoming a racer, so I had to go to the university first.

I thought it would be a good idea to have Michael [come to Bertil Roos]. That was in '79. [Michael] was the son of Mario, obviously, who was a world champion back in '78. I'd read somewhere that [Michael] wanted to get into motorsports and start racing, so I thought, "Let's get him to pick our school and use that as a marketing tool for years to come."

And he did. I contacted the Andrettis — stood in an autograph line, actually — to talk to Mario about having Michael come to our race school. [Michael] was only, I think, 17 at the time. We became really close friends and then … we were [racing] teammates.

How did you get interested in racing growing up in the Baltimore area?

Since my father was a French professor at Goucher College, we were fortunate he had summers off and we would go to France every summer. At that time there were no speed limits in France and there was Formula One racing and Grand Prix [racing], and I had some uncles who drove fast cars.

I just got hooked there. It was just a passion. As long as I can remember, that's all I could think about — race cars, and then wanting to do it as a driver.

Do you hope that the Grand Prix of Baltimore increases interest in racing among Baltimore's young people?

That's one of the big things that I worry about in the new generation. They've been brought up on minivans and SUVs. Back in the day, my generation, you could go soup up a car [and] you could go race it a little bit. If you got caught, you got a ticket. Now you go to jail.

I can see from my nephews that came [last year] to the race in Baltimore — when they see these cars zipping around in the regular downtown setting, they get hooked. You can really see that they think it's neat. It's something that the sport is really working hard on, attracting the youth.

How is work divided on the Andretti Autosport team?

The way I look at it is Mike's like our head coach. We have another fellow … he's our chief marketing officer, so I call him the offensive coordinator. I'm the defensive coordinator. Once the money comes in, then I manage the money. I do the banking, I do contracts, I do the HR reports.

What are the challenges that Andretti Sports Marketing faces with organizing the Grand Prix of Baltimore?

This year, hopefully, it's sort of like a call to arms. I hope everybody comes back and supports it. Because, I think, on an international stage it could be one of the key events in motorsports.

The Indianapolis 500 will always be the pinnacle. But … I think Baltimore has it all. There's a buzz to the city. Last year, I thought it was really neat — and it sort of complements everything. You have major league football and baseball, and now you have this.

How are ticket sales progressing?

We're working hard at it. J.P. [Grant] and Greg [O'Neill] have done everything to support us and we're doing everything that we can. Everything is proceeding, all of the marketing. The crescendo is the last three weeks. The track starts to be built and people begin to feel the excitement and they say, "Oh, we better hurry up and get there."

Have you had difficulty finding contractors in light of last year's operator's failure to pay for services?

No. This is where J.P. Grant and Greg O'Neill come in, being local businessmen and being very adept at understanding the city, understanding the requirements. They stepped up. They put money upfront. We are behind them with the Andretti name and the reputation that we have. The vendors that we've worked with totally understand that we pay our bills and I think they've seen that.

What is Andretti Sports Marketing doing to improve the race weekend for spectators and people living and working in Baltimore?

We've tried to fix things that went wrong last year. The access to the track — more flowing and better signage. There's going to be a family fun zone that's going to be tremendous, where people can bring their kids and take a Ferris wheel ride.

We're making it into a festival, and that's what happened in Milwaukee. [Andretti Sports Marketing took over operations of Milwaukee IndyFest this year, several months before that race took place in June.] When we promoted that event, it had almost gone away and was virtually lifeless. We decided to make it be a street fest. What we're trying to do in Baltimore is really make it a whole fun event.

As far as the track build, we're on time. I think it has been shortened by at least three weeks compared to last year. All of our track building has been done at nighttime so that there's no disruption.

We're going to be ending earlier with the schedule of race events … so one can navigate through the streets and get to the restaurants.

We've added extra points of access and we've divided things up into zones. We'll have zone managers to make sure that if there are any complaints, any access issues, [they'll be resolved].

We're going to utilize the convention center more for parties, and we have an Andretti Zone, which is sort of like a hospitality area, which includes a grandstand seat, paddock pass, entertainment, drivers coming by for meet-and-greets. That's selling well.

All in all, we've been very happy. We're feeling the support. We've had to prove to the city, prove to the press, prove to whomever else was looking — councilmen and whatnot — that we've done this before and Andretti's got a reputation of doing things first-class, and that's what we hope we're bringing to Baltimore.

steve.kilar@baltsun.com

twitter.com/stevekilar

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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