Before glossy race cars careen around downtown streets over Labor Day weekend, another high-speed race must be run.
The team promoting Baltimore's Grand Prix — a group announced by city officials this week after the collapse of two other race organizers — has less than four months to hawk sponsorships, market the event, sell tickets and set up the racecourse and grandstands.
Sports marketing experts say Race On, the new organizers that include racing champion Michael Andretti, must make those tasks their top priorities and also reassure racing fans that the event is on despite months of setbacks. With Andretti and two well-heeled local investors on board, experts say the race could be a success, though it still faces headwinds.
Bob Leffler, whose Baltimore-based agency promotes sports teams nationally, advised the team to focus advertising efforts in the Baltimore area to lure casual enthusiasts, because hard-core racing fans elsewhere are likely aware of the event. The organizers of the inaugural race, Baltimore Racing Development, had sold at least 50,000 tickets by this time last year.
"You have to undo the idea that this race isn't going to happen," said Leffler, whose company did minor work on last year's event. "You can still sell the tickets, but you have to spend a lot of money to do it."
Leffler added that Andretti, a member of one of racing's most renowned families, would be a boon in the search for sponsorship dollars. "That's a great name. He's a great brand," he said. "You can never underestimate someone with a brand because they can walk in with sponsors."
Terry Hasseltine, the state's director of sports marketing, said Andretti's involvement would reassure fans about the race. Hasseltine said race organizers need to speedily drum up race promotions and sell tickets, and that his agency would help.
"It brings instant credibility," said Hasseltine of Andretti's involvement. "It translates to people saying the race is going to happen."
Race On is led by two local investors, including one with close ties to MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blake, who have teamed up with Andretti's sports marketing company. Rawlings-Blake settled on the new team after weeks of negotiations.
Andretti, the son of legend Mario Andretti, is a retired driver who leads a team of racers. He worked on races inSt. Petersburg, Fla., and Toronto under a different company and formed Andretti Sports Marketing in October. Andretti's group also took over management of an IndyCar race in Milwaukee in March. Like the Baltimore race, the Milwaukee event had been organized previously by a group that left significant debts.
Racing insiders say that Andretti devotes most of his time to his racing team, and a management team that is working on the Milwaukee event will also lead race preparations in Baltimore. Andretti's group did not respond to requests for comment.
It is unclear how Andretti formed an alliance with his partners in the race, Columbia-based financier J.P. Grant and Greg O'Neill, a former race driver who runs a concrete contracting company.
Grant's allegiance to the mayor stretches back to 2008, when then-Council President Rawlings-Blake facilitated a donation of $8,400 from him for college scholarships for city high school students. Two years later, Grant chipped in $90,000 to keep city swimming pools open after budget cuts nearly led to pool gates closing weeks before students returned to school.
His company has handled $3.7 billion in contracts for public housing authorities and city governments across the country, including tens of millions of dollars in contracts with Baltimore City's government, public schools and housing authority, according to the company's website.
Grant, his company and relatives made tens of thousands of dollars of contributions to Rawlings-Blake's campaign last year. Nonetheless, he has maintained a low profile. He has not responded to requests for comment.
Arnold M. Jolivet, a leader of the American Minority Contractors and Businesses Association, praised Grant's largesse.
"The beauty of J.P. is he never asks for anything in return," said Jolivet, who has known Grant for decades. "When he gives, he gives freely and unconditionally."
O'Neill, who previously submitted a proposal to take over the race with another investor, also has landed government contracts. He is the vice president of the BMW Construction of Curtis Bay, which has received more than $23 million in federal defense contracts over the past decade, according to public records.
O'Neill also has not responded to requests for comment.
Rawlings-Blake, in a news release announcing the latest deal, said that Andretti's group would arrive with a "turnkey" solution to organize the race and would handle public relations, marketing, track construction, food and beverage vendors and ticket sales in addition to sponsorships, which are key to a profitable race.
It's not clear which — if any — sponsors the group will be bringing with it.
Two big sponsors of the Milwaukee IndyFest said they have no interest in sponsoring Baltimore's race.
Marcus Hotels and Resorts, a division of the Milwaukee-based Marcus Corp. that also runs movie theaters, does not have any outlets near Baltimore so will not be a sponsor, said Chris Anderson, senior vice president of sales and marketing.GoDaddy.com, the website registration and hosting service, is not joining as a sponsor either, said Elizabeth Driscoll, a spokeswoman for the company.
"As far as our IndyCar sponsorships, GoDaddy is the broadcast sponsor for a sixth consecutive year at the Indy 500, in addition to having a trackside sponsorship at the Milwaukee Mile event," she said. GoDaddy is also a sponsor of Andretti Autosport driver James Hinchcliffe, who is expected to drive in Baltimore's race.
DHL, the delivery company, and the Dr Pepper Snapple Group, which are also sponsors of Andretti drivers and the Milwaukee IndyFest, did not respond to inquiries Friday.
Although the Marcus group is not acting as a sponsor of the Baltimore race, Anderson said he would not hesitate to tell local hoteliers to do business with Andretti's company.
"Man, they've hit the ground running," he said. "I wish all of our customers were like that. They're just so professional to deal with."
Andretti has made himself available to promote the Wisconsin race. And the Andretti team has made visits to many Milwaukee-area businesses and sought smaller sponsorships, Anderson said. If a local company is not interested in marketing at the race this year, organizers hope they will see a success in June and want to contribute in the future, he said.
"They've reached out and befriended so many businesses," Anderson said. "They want to do this for the next 10 to 15 years."
Much of the success in finding Milwaukee sponsors has stemmed from Andretti's appointment of former AirTran executive Kevin Healy as the event's organizer. AirTran has a hub in Milwaukee, and Healy is well-connected in the city's business community, said Rick Frenette, executive director of the state fair park that is leasing its racetrack.
Healy, who did not respond to requests for comment Friday, is expected to take a lead role in organizing the Baltimore Grand Prix as well, according to news reports from Milwaukee.
Still, the Milwaukee event that's just over five weeks away has yet to find a lead sponsor. And the Andretti group plans to begin marketing in earnest in the coming weeks.
Andretti was instrumental in bringing Honda on board as the title sponsor of the road race in Toronto in 2009, according to news reports. The prior five years, the car company also was the title sponsor of Andretti's road race inSt. Petersburg, Fla.
But Andretti and his partners on those races split up around the same time they took over the Toronto race.
Kim Green, one of Andretti's former partners on the Florida and Ontario races, declined to comment. Green and Andretti agreed not to discuss the terms of the split, said a spokesman for Green, Paul Vaillancourt III.
twitter.com/stevekilarCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun