The new team that's organizing the Baltimore Grand Prix faces two big challenges. The first is overcoming the logistical difficulties of throwing together the complicated enterprise that is a three-day street racing festival in less than four months. And the second is overcoming the skepticism of race fans, sponsors, vendors and Baltimore residents who are wary after last year's organizers left millions in bad debts and the city's handpicked replacement team collapsed just months before this year's event. It's a tall order, and for the city's sake, they need to succeed. After a meeting with two top race officials, we are hopeful, if not certain, that they will.
There is no question that the team now running the event, Race On LLC, is more impressive than any that have come before it. The local investors who are bankrolling the event have partnered with Andretti Motorsports, a firm that has extensive experience in putting together street races like this one. The race's general manager, Timothy A. Mayer, has been living in downtown Baltimore for the last several weeks and meeting with business owners, city officials and others in an effort to avoid a repeat of the problems large and small from last year's race. He has tweaked the course, the grandstands and fences and overhauled the management structure of the event in ways that should make it an even more enjoyable event for race fans. Mr. Mayer said putting on a race is a matter of thousands of tiny details, and he is clearly in command of them.
That said, the tight time frame he has to work with before the Labor Day race clearly presents some obstacles. He conceded that it is extremely unlikely that the race will get a title sponsor — typically a key component of an event's financial viability — because such relationships usually take nine months to a year to negotiate. Ticket sales only began at the end of May — six months later than they did for last year's race. Mr. Mayer insists that is not a cause for concern, but he was also unwilling to provide any specifics about sales so far.
The race organizers are benefiting from some of the work performed by last year's group. Existing improvements to the pit row near Camden Yards will save the new group millions, and they were able to pick up the race walls last year's organizers built for pennies on the dollar. They have also made changes that should reduce the race's reliance on city services like police and firefighters. Nonetheless, it appears certain that the investors will lose money, at least this year and possibly into the future.
One of the two investors, J.P. Grant, accompanied Mr. Mayer to The Sun and he said he is prepared for that eventuality. He said there is "zero chance" that the vendors will be stiffed this year and said he thought it possible that the event could be profitable as early as 2013 but that he is committed for the long haul regardless.
But his willingness, along with his partner, Greg O'Neill, to ride out what could be significant short-term losses will be crucial to the city's ability to recoup its investment of time, money and effort into this event. Under Baltimore's new contract with the race organizers, the city gets a flat fee up front to cover expenses (though only about half as much as it spent last year), and admissions and amusement taxes from ticket sales are to be paid before race organizers get access to the revenue. But Baltimore gets no race fee, and it would likely take several years of successful events before taxpayers break even.
The civic-mindedness of Messrs. Grant and O'Neill and the experience of the Andretti team are reassuring, but we are ultimately left to accept on faith that this year will be different. Race On is a private group, and under ordinary circumstances, its unwillingness to share details of ticket sales or the financial reports it is required to provide the city would be understandable. But given last year's debacle, more transparency is in order.
That said, last year's race was, from a fan's perspective, a thoroughly enjoyable experience, and all indications are that this year's will be even better. The success of the recent Sailabration and July Fourth fireworks show that Baltimore can accommodate large crowds safely and smoothly, and last year's Grand Prix allayed fears that a road race would render downtown completely inaccessible. There is no reason for the travails of last year's Grand Prix organizers to keep spectators away from this year's race. Baltimore is committed to this event for the next five years, and whether one considers that a wise or foolish decision, we all now have an incentive to see that it succeeds.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun