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Autobahn Indoor Speedway brings the roar of racing to Jessup

Maryland's first indoor track entices business community to loosen its tie

By Candy Thomson, The Baltimore Sun

June 1, 2013

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In a former warehouse nestled deep in a Howard County industrial park, people are getting in touch with their inner Danica Patrick.

Or Bart Simpson.

Autobahn Indoor Speedway opened last month, introducing suburbia to the world of eye-popping, white-knuckle, lead-footed thrills that come from driving miniature race cars on miniature versions of the famous Monaco and LeMans courses.

"Howard County is loosening its tie a little bit," said Bill Erskine, a land-use lawyer who loosened his neckwear and donned a crash helmet during last Thursday's business mixer, sponsored by the Howard County Economic Development Authority. "The county is changing, and the pastimes that appeal to its residents and visitors are changing.

"It's not the allure of the golf course anymore. It's the allure of the racetrack. And it's a good thing."

That's music to the ears of the seven partners from Maryland and Florida who invested nearly $2 million to renovate the 70,000-square-foot space in Jessup and buy 50 Italian go-karts.

With little advertising, the speedway has attracted 2,600 customers — locals and visitors from Delaware and Pennsylvania who paid $19.95 to grip the wheel of a racer and let the mosquito-like whine of a revving engine wash over them, the owners said.

"That exceeded our expectations," said Bill Johnson, one of the partners.

But their business blueprint is built on generating about half of their revenue from companies reserving the track and its conference rooms for business mixers, employee appreciation days or team-building exercises at $50 to $85 a head.

Team-building — isn't that the adult rationalization for acting like a kid?

"Absolutely," said a grinning Larry Twele, CEO of the HCEDA. "Why should kids have all the fun? You need to get out of the office and clear the cobwebs."

The speedway came to Howard County because kids — specifically those of the partners — hooked their fathers on the adrenaline rush that comes from karting. Two of the partners have roots in Baltimore, so they cast their search for space in the suburbs.

But they had reservations. Maryland, after all, has a reputation in some circles of being unfriendly to business.

"That's the reputation, but in real life, that's not what we experienced," said David Larson, the venture's managing partner. "The business environment is wonderful. Instead of stop signs, we've gotten nothing but green lights."

There are nearly 20 indoor tracks in the country, mainly in the South and California. This is Maryland's first.

"This is a sort of out-of-the-box project for Maryland," Johnson said.

Karting is becoming more mainstream as the tracks get better and indoor tracks proliferate in the suburbs, said Van Gilder, senior consultant for Charlotte-based World Karting Association.

"They have leagues. They have classrooms. They're there to teach you about the sport and not just have you go out and wreck something," Gilder said. "Mom doesn't have a coronary because she sees her kid out there getting beat on. The indoor tracks are run like businesses and lend credibility to the sport."

Each track is a quarter-mile, with plenty of curves and room to pass. Top speed is about 55 mph "if you know what you're doing," said Jordan Wallace, the speedway's competition director. In the turns, drivers experience a gravitational pull two times their weight.

A safety and equipment briefing precedes a helmet fitting. Staff ensure seat belts are tight and each driver has a basic understanding of the car and course before a few practice laps.

The cars, at $10,000 apiece, are all electric, meaning no exhaust, no fire potential and a much quieter outing. The gas pedal is under the right foot, the brake under the left. Don't bother asking about power steering.

"It's all muscle," said Tim Harwood, driver of the No. 18 car and dead last in the standings after Thursday's business mixer. "And I don't have any left."

High-tech crash barriers line each route, and a race official stands watch, a remote control in hand to ratchet down the speed — the electronic version of the yellow caution flag.

A rookie driver needs under half a minute to complete one lap. After a full 14-lap race, "your heart rate is up. You're perspiring a bit. It's stressful and exhilarating at the same time," said Erskine after his race.

To build a fan base, the speedway is starting a summer camp this month for children over 8 years old and 4 feet tall who will learn to drive junior karts with top speeds of 25 mph. Once a child reaches 13 years old and 56 inches tall, they can graduate to the adult karts.

For the adults, there will be a 10-week adult race league this summer.

Mixers like the one the HCEDA sponsored help established businesspeople connect with the next generation, Erskine said.

"Our leaders in business and politics are getting younger and they are achieving more earlier. This is a great way for us all to interact," he said as he tightened his tie, smoothed his silver hair and got ready to return to his grown-up job. "Just to show you I'm not totally stodgy, my score has already been posted to my Facebook page."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com