The street paving is finished, safety barriers and fences are in place, grandstand seating in three different locations is completed, and signs of major sponsors are evident in downtown Baltimore as the city prepares for its first street circuit IndyCar race, which kicks off Labor Day weekend.
The two-mile Baltimore Grand Prix race, part of the IZOD IndyCar series, is expected to attract more than 100,000 fans during the holiday weekend for three days of 180-mile-per-hour street races, concerts and other entertainment at the first IndyCar competition in a major East Coast city.
"We were told that ticket sales would spike as we got closer to the event, and we're seeing that with ticket sales being out the roof," said Jay Davidson, president of the Baltimore Racing Development Corporation. "We have people purchasing tickets from 46 states and six different countries, so everything is going very well and we're confident it will be a great race."
The Baltimore Grand Prix will dominate the downtown area Sept. 2-4, with the racetrack's starting point for the various races throughout the weekend being Pratt Street near the Convention Center. IndyCar's top drivers' fenderless, open-cockpit cars will scream down Pratt Street to Light Street, past the Inner Harbor and continue up Conway Street around Camden Yards before ending up back at Pratt Street, after 80 or more laps around the track.
The three days of racing will include developmental races for up-and-coming drivers on Friday; the much-touted American Le Mans Series race of Lamborghinis, Porsches, Ferraris and other high-end cars on Saturday, with drivers such as Indy champ Bobby Rahal; and the Indy Lights series race on Sunday, followed by the main event, the Izod IndyCar series race, featuring 26 of IndyCar's top drivers, the same cars and drivers seen at the Indy 500.
"I think everyone's thrilled for IndyCar to be in Baltimore, which is a great location, and a place where we'll put on an action-packed, great show for the fans," said Graham Rahal, who will race in the Izod IndyCar Series. The son of racing great Bobby Rahal, he has spent most of his life at racetracks. "The course in Baltimore is extremely cool and a great track. Having it go along the water will add to the fun."
Rahal isn't just appreciative of the aesthetics of the Baltimore racetrack, but has spent a lot of time studying the maps of the course to get a handle on its basic lines and the various corners, straightaways and turns.
"The first few laps is when you learn the most about a track, and this one will be very challenging because none of us will have raced there before, so we will all have to adapt fast, and that's not common," Rahal said. "We've been to the other tracks time and time before, but there's a lot of learning to be done in Baltimore."
One of IndyCar's winningest drivers, Al Unser, was a consultant on the design of the track, and before the 5-year franchise contract was awarded to the city, Unser and other IndyCar officials walked the streets of downtown Baltimore to determine if a street circuit race was possible.
"Baltimore is a beautiful city to design a racetrack around, and when we walked the streets and around the beautiful harbor, all we were seeing were camera angles," said Terry Angstadt, president of Indy Racing League's commercial division in Indianapolis. "This is going to be broadcast in more than 180 cities and it's going to look spectacular."
The two-and-a-half-hour Le Mans race will be broadcast on ESPN and other networks the day after that race takes place, and the two-hour IZOD IndyCar Series will be televised live on NBC cable channels and internationally.
"That eight to 10 hours of international television branding will be great for Baltimore," Davidson said. "There is a big appetite for racing worldwide, so the city will get lots of exposure."
City officials are also expecting the race to bring in about $70 million in hotel, restaurant and other related sales to Baltimore's businesses, which was a major selling point in getting local officials on board with the idea.
"Baltimore's one obligation was to provide a race-ready track and they got federal funds for that," Davidson said. "Constructing the track did have an impact on commuters, but the work needed to be done on Pratt, Light and other streets anyway, which are smooth now."
Last year was the first time the IndyCar Series was held in Sao Paolo, Brazil, and the race was well attended and did well financially, according to Angstadt. Local organizers and national IndyCar officials are promoting the Baltimore Grand Prix race as having that kind of potential. The race is also being compared to the more established IndyCar Series' race in Long Beach, which industry experts say is only second to the IndyCar race in Monaco.
"We've raced in Long Beach for 38 years, and the race in Baltimore is similar to it because we race around their harbor too. So the parallel is that Baltimore could be the East coast equivalent of Long Beach," Angstadt said.
Davidson said people from all over the Mid-Atlantic are buying tickets in droves, including the pricier grandstand and VIP sections of the race. Most IndyCar races have only one grandstand, but Baltimore's Grand Prix has three, for a total of 30,000 grandstand seats at the Inner Harbor, the Convention Center and Camden Yards. Those seats, ranging from $50 to $85 for a one-day pass and $100 to $160 for a three-day pass, were 75 percent sold out the second week of August. The VIP sections, priced from $425 to $900 for three-day passes to the choicest viewing, the paddock area and other amenities, were selling well also.
For fans on a budget, lower-priced one-day passes are available for $20 to $45 in the grounds area, where fans do not have seats but can wander around various locations of the track. A three-day ground pass costs $65 for adults. There's no charge for children 2 and younger, and discounted tickets are available for those for those 12 and younger.
Although the lower-priced and discounted tickets won't have the amenities of the VIP suites and balconies, there will be plenty of perks for those fans to enjoy. There will be live concerts in the Party Zone near Camden and Howard streets, where local and national acts will perform throughout the day and evening on all three days.
In the Family Fun Zone, at Charles Street and the Convention Center, there will be lots of games for children to engage in, including a chance to spin a 22-foot-tall prize wheel. South of Camden Yards there will be an Interactive Racing Zone, where fans can participate in racing games, take photos with drivers, drive go-karts, race radio-controlled cars on a mini replica of the Baltimore track and watch live track activity on large screens, all for no charge.
Drivers will have multiple autograph signings and the cars can be seen up close in the paddock garage area in a lower level of the Convention Center. On Friday, there will not be a charge for fans to wander around the Paddock area to watch cars being prepped while drivers confer with their teams. The price for the paddock area goes up to $25 to $55 the rest of the weekend.
Davidson said vendors selling a variety of food will have stands throughout the race area, ranging from hot dogs to gourmet meals.
"We plan to have foods that represent Baltimore included, such as Greek vendors, seafood and vendors from local restaurants will be there too to show visitors what the city has to offer," he said.
There will also be plenty of non-alcoholic and alcoholic beverage stands and beer gardens throughout the grounds, as well as indoor and portable bathrooms.
Driver Graham Rahal is optimistic about the event's chances to become a fixture.
"I think this race will definitely last and that we're going to have a great crowd with lots of local support," he said. "This is an exciting time for IndyCar racing and this race will have a tremendous impact on the city. I'm looking forward to winning it and coming back."
Road closings will gradually start Aug. 29, with Light, Pratt, Conway and Russell streets closed by Sept 1. Martin Luther King Boulevard will be the main roadway into the city through the end of race.
Some light rail stations will be closed and shuttle buses will circle the downtown area. Go to http://www.gptraffic.com for traffic reports, alternate routes and transportation updates, including water taxi schedules.
Parking tickets are $30 for one-day passes and $70 for a three-day pass. The deadline for VIP parking has passed.
For those not wishing to pre-purchase parking, the most comprehensive tool to locate a downtown garage can be found at http://www.godowntownbaltimore.com/docs/Parking_Web_Map.pdf.
In addition to downtown lots, the Baltimore Grand Prix has secured two satellite parking areas, from which spectators can take shuttle buses. See http://baltimoregrandprix.com/parking.cfm.
OK to bring:
Purses (will be searched)
Small diaper, camera or other bags 11x17 or smaller (all will be searched at the gate)
Umbrellas, but must be closed in grandstands
One 20-ounce, unopened non-alcoholic beverage per person
Baby strollers (may be prohibited in grandstands)
Infant food, drink and medicine
Not OK to bring:
Food or beverages
Bikes (bike racks in designated areas)