The agreement with new managers for the Baltimore Grand Prix looked risky for city taxpayers when MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration signed it in February. With little visible progress since then on putting this year's race together, and with signs of dissent among the new race promoters, it now looks much worse. It's time for city officials to give up on the notion of holding another IndyCar race in Baltimore this year.
Ticket sales for the 2011 Grand Prix began the previous December. Tickets are not yet on sale for the 2012 race, and no marketing for it has taken place. The lack of a title sponsor was a sign of the troubles that the 2011 race would eventually face — its organizers racked up millions in unpaid debts to the city, state and vendors, few of which are likely to be repaid. The 2012 race organizers, despite the popularity of last year's event with drivers and fans alike, have yet to line up a title sponsor either. In its get-tough act with the new race promoters after last year's debacle, the city insisted on a series of deadlines and benchmarks, but they have not been met.
And now comes word that Dale Dillon, the head of the group that was supposed to make the 2012 version not only well run but also financially solvent, may be on his way out. When the city signed its deal with the new promoters, Downforce Racing, Mr. Dillon's involvement was cited as a key reason we should have confidence that last year's troubles were behind us. He came with the strong recommendation of IndyCar officials, and his last-minute involvement in the 2011 race was seen as crucial to that event happening at all. But he is now evidently at odds with his two partners — neither of whom has experience in putting on car races — and appears to have been effectively out of the picture for some weeks now. This may be as good an indication as any that the 2012 race isn't going to work out.
In a sense, it's tempting to give Downforce Racing more time to get its act together. IndyCar officials still seem bullish about Baltimore as a race venue; the race circuit's top executives came to Baltimore this week, and they have suggested they may step in to help put on this year's event. Moreover, the city is not going to incur any significant new costs until the immediate leadup to the race, which is scheduled for Labor Day weekend. Most of the expense for the Grand Prix was incurred before last year's event, when the city spent millions to prepare the streets around the Inner Harbor. If the Grand Prix doesn't become an annual fixture, that investment (and the city's expenses for police, fire protection and other services during the 2011 race) will be a total loss.
But the terms of Baltimore's contract with Downforce Racing make the city more dependent than before on the success of the race. Baltimore's agreement with the last group of promoters provided it with a flat fee for hosting the event, plus reimbursement for the city's costs. This time, the flat fee is gone. Instead, the city gets to collect a $3 fee on every ticket sold. If attendance this year were to match attendance last year, that would amount to less than half what it actually cost the city to put on the inaugural race. The worst-case scenario for the city is for this group to hold the event but for it to be a flop. The longer Downforce Racing goes without selling tickets or marketing the race, the more likely that becomes.
The Baltimore Grand Prix was an exciting idea. More than 100,000 people attended last year's races, which took place over three days, and many reported coming away with positive feelings about the city. That was worth something, but not enough to justify taking what looks like an increasingly risky bet on the prospect that Downforce Racing, even with IndyCar's help, can pull together an event that succeeds financially.
Given Baltimore's up-front investment in the Grand Prix last year, it was reasonable for the Rawlings-Blake administration to see whether a new management group could salvage the event. Now it looks like we have our answer. It may be worth discussing the possibility of a race in 2013, but with Labor Day just 41/2 months away, it's time to cut our losses and give up on this year.