As summer began last year, with the Grand Prix of Baltimore about three months away, organizers had sold no tickets. They had landed no sponsorships. And they hadn't put out a single advertisement.
Financier J.P. Grant and his group, Race On LLC, swooped in to save a troubled race — which one business had left in financial ruin and another failed to even launch — and pulled off what Grant called a "90-day miracle."
This year, they say they won't need divine intervention.
Organizers are bullish on sponsorships for the Labor Day weekend event and on tickets, which have been for sale since before Christmas, though they won't release exact numbers. They say they've learned from the rushed planning of last year's event and are introducing new features in what should prove a pivotal year for the race's future.
"We're literally four months ahead of last year," said Tim Mayer, general manager of the Grand Prix of Baltimore. "This time last year, I hadn't even said yes to being a part of the race."
In another change this year, organizers say they're making a concerted push to attract parents with children to a more family-friendly event.
"We're making sure the kids have a wonderful experience," said Debbie Bell, the race's vice president of sales and marketing.
Race organizers are letting children 12 and under in for free, if accompanied by an adult, compared to the $35 price for all attendees last year. They're moving the "Family Fun Zone" inside the air-conditioned Baltimore Convention Center and expanding the activities there. The zone will feature a rock-climbing wall, moon bounce, indoor go-kart track and a pinewood derby race for Boy Scouts, organizers said.
"Last year, we were 100 percent focused on getting the race put on," Mayer said. "Now we're absolutely focused on increasing the value for families."
But Mayer said organizers also are making changes for adults. They're improving the beer garden, hoping to host the "World's Largest Crab Feast" and booking better-known bands, he said, though he wouldn't disclose names.
"They're not Justin Bieber, but they're bands music fans will have heard of," Mayer said.
Matt Breeden, IndyCar's vice president of business affairs, said the racing company expects big results from the Baltimore event and is considering new ways to promote the race to fans.
"If you give someone an entire year to plan, you'll naturally going to have a better event," he said. "It's a great race for us. The economic impact reports don't lie. It could potentially be one of the signature events for the season."
But the race still has some detractors.
David C. Troy, a software developer from Bolton Hill who filed a lawsuit in 2011 in a failed attempt to stop Grand Prix organizers from cutting down city trees to clear sight lines for fans, said the race is likely more stable than in previous years, but he questioned why organizers won't be more transparent about their finances, given they benefit from city services.
They're being more sensitive to issues the community cares about, such as cutting down trees," Troy said. "At the same time, you have to wonder: Is this the best idea? This particular event was shoved down everybody's throat. There are a lot of public dollars that went into this. Is it a good investment? It would be easier to get excited about it if we could see some financial statements."
Baltimore organizers say they have sought advice from the Greater Baltimore Committee, which advised them to start selling tickets for hospitality tents to smaller businesses. Mayer said the event will sell hospitality tickets to groups of 20 this year.
Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, an organization of business and civic leaders, said the larger tents provide a good value but may be too expensive for some.
"There are many companies who would like to entertain their customers and vendors, and the prices of the largest tents alone don't fit their budgets," Fry said. "We are communicating with those in the business community to urge them to support the race."
Brian McComas, owner of Ryleigh's Oyster restaurant and president of the Federal Hill Hospitality Association, said the organization is working to change perceptions in the neighborhood that the race is an inconvenience and a traffic nightmare. His business saw a spike in customers both of the last two Labor Day weekends compared with previous years.
"Federal Hill is one of the neighborhoods where people were complaining about the race. We're trying to change that," McComas said.
The association, which is considering purchasing a tent, plans to host a "Cars and Bars" event, featuring high-performance automobiles, such as a new-model McLaren.
"We're going to line Cross Street with cars and make it a cocktail party," McComas said.
Last year's Grand Prix of Baltimore, the second running of the race, sold 30,000 fewer tickets and generated $5 million less for the local economy than the first, according to consultants commissioned by race organizers.
The consultants, Forward Analytics, reported that more than 131,000 people attended the three-day event last Labor Day weekend, compared to 160,000 in the first year. The economic impact, including direct spending such as hotel rooms bought as well as indirect spending, totaled $42.3 million last year.
Forward Analytics found $24.9 million in direct spending, down from $27.6 million a year earlier.
But the second Grand Prix avoided the financial fallout of the first year's race, which was organized under different management, Baltimore Racing Development LLC.
Even though the first race drew larger crowds, Baltimore Racing Development reported $12 million in debts to investors, creditors and vendors, and took a year to pay much of the money it owed the city and state in taxes and fees.
"My stress level is so much lower this year than in the first two years," said Councilman William H. Cole IV, a race proponent whose district includes the race course. "There's a stable organization, with a stable company behind it. Stability and ownership makes all the difference. Nobody's worried about bills not being paid."
Grant, who owns current organizer Race On with partner Greg O'Neill, said he is growing more optimistic about the event's long-term financial health.
"Ticket sales are well in advance of last year," Grant said. "Suite sales are well in advance. Sponsors are on tap already. We've learned from last year. This is a race I'm committed to. Every year it should get a little bit better and a little bit better."
Mayer said organizers have been running commercials in print, radio and television for nearly two months, whereas last year they ran television ads only in the final month before the event.
He recalled the trepidation he felt last year when racing champion Michael Andretti, whose company promotes the event, asked Mayer to take a gamble on the race despite the short preparation time.
"This very day last year, I was in Indianapolis meeting with Michael," Mayer recalled last week. "They were trying to persuade me to join them. I said, 'It scares the hell out of me. I'm in.'"
Grand Prix of Baltimore
When: Aug. 30 to Sept. 1
Tickets: Online at grandprixofbaltimore.missiontix.com; or by phone at 888-996-4774
Reserved grandstand seating: $30-$185
General admission: $5-$65
Information: grandprixofbaltimore.comCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun