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New Grand Prix group is off to slow start

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With the second Baltimore Grand Prix less than five months away, organizers of the race have yet to sign key agreements, land sponsorship deals, launch a marketing campaign or start selling tickets.

Downforce Racing LLC has not fulfilled three of five benchmarks that its contract with the city required to be done three weeks ago. The contract, drawn up following the financial debacle of last year's race, was designed to prevent the new racing group from falling into the same problems as the previous organizers.

Yet, as the Labor Day weekend racing festival approaches, the new race team finds itself further behind than its predecessors were last year. The previous group had sold tens of thousands of tickets and signed on many small sponsors by April.

Despite the delays, Downforce executives and city officials say they are confident that preparations are on track for this year's race over Labor Day weekend in September.

"Everything is going fine," said Dan Reck, a Downforce manager. "There's a lot to do and we're working really hard to get everything done."

A spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said that the administration was "reasonably comfortable" with the group's progress.

Others were less sanguine. For instance, Robin Miller, a longtime racing columnist for the Speed Channel, said it was worrisome that Downforce has not yet signed sponsorship deals.

"It would concern me that you don't have a sponsor six months out," said Miller. "Street races live and die and are made and broken by sponsorships."

City officials severed ties with the organizers of the inaugural race, Baltimore Racing Development, after the group collapsed financially, including failing to pay more than $500,000 in city taxes. The city and the state comptroller's office have yet to receive payment.

The new group's contract with the city, which was signed in mid-February, specified that it would meet five benchmarks by March 15: entering into a ticket escrow agreement with the city, settling on a method of monthly financial reports, signing a sanctioning agreement with Indycar, signing an agreement with the Maryland Stadium Authority and identifying necessary road repairs.

But Downforce has twice delayed the start of ticket sales. The racing group originally said tickets would be available in mid-March, then late March. Most recently, the group announced on its Facebook page that tickets would go on sale within the next 30 days.

And Downforce has not finalized contracts with Indycar or with the Maryland Stadium Authority.

In an email apparently sent to The Baltimore Sun by mistake, an attorney for the stadium authority noted that the delayed contract could "present some PR problems" for the race group and advised the authority spokeswoman to "refrain discussing this with the Sun."

"At this point, I would give the Sun no information until we find out if [Downforce Racing] has the necessary signatures," Cynthia M. Hahn, an assistant attorney general, said in an email to the stadium authority's spokeswoman.

Neither Hahn nor stadium authority officials responded to inquiries as to why the agency was concerned with protecting Downforce or concealing information from The Sun.

Mayoral spokesman Ryan O'Doherty said that Downforce was close to completing the agreement with Indycar and that the agreements with the Stadium Authority and the ticket escrow deal lacked only the signatures of Downforce managers.

"Significant progress has been made in terms of meeting the nuts and bolts," O'Doherty said. "We're reasonably comfortable that things are moving in the right direction as of right now and we're continuing to monitor it very closely."

Reck, the Downforce manager, said his group was eager to sell tickets – sales bring revenue – but wanted to wait until all details had been finalized to prevent inconveniences for fans.

"We'd rather take a little more time in the beginning, than be rushed just to get something out there," he said.

The group is waiting to promote the race until sales began, Reck said. While the hosts of the other 15 races that make up Indycar's season have put together detailed web sites and are hawking tickets, Downforce's site offers little information and has not changed since February. Promotion of the race is limited to the Facebook page, which has more than 14,000 fans.

"There is no real reason for us to spend money on advertising until there are tickets on sale," said Reck. "After that we're going to do a big push."

Sarah Davis, Indycar's senior director of business affairs, said that she hoped to finalize the race sanctioning agreement – or the contract to run the race – with Downforce within the next week or so.

"We're working through the process. It's a very typical process," she said. "We're in the home stretch."

Reck said that both Indycar and a second racing series, the American Le Mans Series, were assisting in the search for a title sponsor. Smaller sponsors, such as hotels, would come later, he said.

"We are working from a top-down perspective," said Reck. "We want to get our major sponsors down first, and then work on the smaller sponsorships."

Reck, one of the group's three managers, said they have hired a staff of two and are working from a small office in Little Italy. Unlike their predecessor, Baltimore Racing Development, which had a gleaming office in the Camden Yards warehouse, Downforce is trying to keep rent costs low, he said.

Despite the lack of advertising, some hotels near the race route say they are getting inquiries from race fans who learned of the event last year.

Linda Westgate, the general manager at the Hilton Baltimore, said her staff was selling more rooms for Labor Day than this time last year.

"We're seeing a longer length of stay, and we're seeing a pattern of repeat guests," she said.

Westgate said Downforce Racing officials have reached out to the hotel to discuss opportunities and line up blocks of rooms for some groups who could potentially be staying there.

Bob Leffler, the founder of the marketing and sales firm the Leffler Agency, said he planned to meet with Downforce Racing officials this week to discuss the possibility of promoting the event again this year.

He said his agency got involved with the first Grand Prix "late in the game," which was around this time last year.

"It doesn't mean it's too late," he said. "We didn't have to spend a whole lot of money to sell tickets last year. Every time you guys wrote a story – good, bad or indifferent – we sold more tickets. There's no reason to believe this year's tickets wouldn't sell well."

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

twitter.com/juliemore

luke.broadwater@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lukebroadwater

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