By Sandra McKee
The Baltimore Sun
3:28 PM EDT, August 18, 2012
With the Grand Prix of Baltimore two weeks away, the race's promoter and owner of three cars competing in the IndyCar Series this year, Michael Andretti, was in town recently and sat down for a conversation that ranged from the upcoming event through the streets of the city to current issues in racing.
When it comes to Baltimore, Andretti is still learning about the city, but he did offer insight into how Andretti Sports Marketing has cut thousands of dollars from last year's expenses.
Andretti also shared his thoughts on the debate about penalties for unapproved engine changes in the series and IndyCar chief executive officer Randy Bernard's comments last month about potential adjustments to the rule. The current IndyCar penalty at each race for an unapproved engine change is 10 starting spots in the lineup.
The IndyCar Series will race on a road course at Sonoma, Calif., next Sunday before arriving in Baltimore for the Sept. 2 street race.
Why did you decide to become involved in the Grand Prix here?
I was asked to look at it. J.P. [Grant, a partner in Race On LLC] called me out of the blue, because there was a chance the race wasn't going to happen. For me, being a team owner, I just felt the loss of this race would be a huge loss for the series because this race was such a huge event. It was one of the biggest highlights of the year last year. And I think it would have been a huge loss for the series for this race to go away. So that's what motivated me to get involved. … IndyCar racing is my life.
Did you know Grant before he called you?
No, not at all. I guess he's friends with [car owner] Chip Ganassi. J.P. called Chip and asked if he had any ideas for anybody who could help out with the race and Chip gave him my name and number and J.P. called me. And that's how it all started.
So, he called out of the blue to you. And your initial reaction was?
'Come and let's talk about it, because I don't want this thing to go away.' And, so, I knew how big and great it was. 'We just can't let this thing die, so, come. Let's figure this thing out.' And that was it.
Since you joined the group on a shortened time schedule, how did that affect planning for the race?
It's been a real challenge. But I've got to say we have great people and they're answering the challenge mightily, I think. Everything is pretty much on schedule, which is amazing, you know. We had four months to go and literally form a company and get it going, especially for an event of this magnitude. So, I'm really proud of everybody from Andretti Sports Marketing that's been working their butts off 24-7.
What were some of the areas you saw from last year's race you could cut?
With these events, if you don't control the expenses, you're in trouble. The event did pretty well, revenue-wise, last year. It's just they did horrible, expense-wise. We do have a lot of experience doing these things. We've been able to cut this thing a ton without really cutting anything. There was so much waste that was going on. Everybody had their hand out. Everybody was getting paid for doing nothing. Everybody was a consultant. There was no money left. They blew it all. Wasted it all. Everything is going according to plan. We think 95 percent of the skeletons in the closet have been found.
Your driver Ryan Hunter-Reay was one of several drivers penalized for unapproved engine changes before the race in Edmonton. IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard recently said the series will consider changes to the 10-spot penalty in the offseason. What's your take on the situation?
In some ways it does affect the show. It confuses things a little bit, especially for the fans, who don't quite understand. But then I do see why the rule is there. It's there to control costs for the engine manufacturers, basically to protect them from themselves. So if they do come up with a way to do away with it, they're going to have to come up with another way to control the costs. I don't know what the right answer is.
Is a 10-spot penalty on the starting grid a big penalty?
At some tracks it is. On a track like Fontana [Auto Club Speedway, the two-mile oval in California where the series ends the season Sept. 15 with the IZOD IndyCar world championships], not so big. At a place like Mid-Ohio, very big. It depends on how hard it is to pass on the track.
What about here in Baltimore?
Here it could be a big penalty. Not the easiest track to pass on, although I think, without having the chicane [the series of man-made turns on Pratt Street that slowed cars as they approached the first turn onto Light Street last year], it's going to be a lot better. I think there is going to be a good passing opportunity going into Turn 1 without the chicane. But this is one you would prefer not to have that penalty.
Your chief operating officer, John Lopes, told me recently that he was standing with you on race morning next to the track last year, looking out at the scene, and you turned and said, 'This would be a great event to be part of one day.' What were you thinking? What did you see?
The magnitude of it. You know, It was just really mind-blowing in a lot of ways. There were tons of people here. It was huge. It was like 'Wow! This is the first year. This could be a crown jewel.' I thought it could become a crown jewel. [Then, laughing] I never thought in a million years I really would be involved with it. But here we are.
I know your father and mother [Hall of Fame and racing icon Mario Andretti and his wife, Dee Ann] used to come to Baltimore to eat crabs to celebrate his racing wins during his career. Do you have a favorite anything — place, food, restaurant — here?
I actually don't know Baltimore real well. But now I'm learning it. Actually, we're going down to Little Italy to eat and check out some of the restaurants down there. I can't say I have a favorite yet. Last year I was only here literally just for the race and some sponsor dinners I had to go to, and I stayed in my motor home. To this point, it's all I have to go on. That's how it is at most races, people stay in the compound.
Do you think that will change here, that people will get out of the compound and enjoy the surrounding area?
Yeah, that's one of the complaints, if that's the word. One of the challenges from last year. We're listening and trying to figure out what we can do to open things up. I think what they're talking about doing is between every practice and race opening up the gates underneath the bridges. You can move a lot of people that way, so they don't have to line up and have big backups over the bridges. I think that is being talked about. I think another thing people were saying is that they had problems once they were inside, because they really didn't know where to go. So we're working on better signage to make sure people know where to go for all the action.
There were also places, like Little Italy, beyond the Inner Harbor, that felt left out of what was going on here.
We're trying. That's one thing, our general manager Tim Mayer has been going to each and every door and knocking, asking what their complaints were and what we can do to make the experience better for everybody. We're really trying to do the best we can to make this the least headache we can for everybody.
One question I was going to ask is what improvements fans can notice at this year's race, but you've covered at least some of that.
"Yes, some of it. I think also we're also working on the traffic patterns. I think they learned a lot of things from last year that will make things better this year. But honestly, I think they did all right for last year being the first time, I think no one realized it was going to be that big. We're just going to try to learn from that and be ready for it this year."
As we're getting close to race day here, what is your biggest worry?
Well, I'm a promoter, so weather. As a promoter it could kill you. We're hoping for a weekend like they had last year. But even if it rains there will be a lot to do. It rained in Milwaukee right before the race. Usually when that happens, everyone leaves. But in Milwaukee, everyone stayed because there were so many fun things to do, and they had a good time. And here, on a street course, the cars — in all the series — will race, unless it's a deluge. We have rain tires.
You father always said he never wanted to be anything other than a race car driver. But you, after your successful racing career, have moved on to being a car owner and now, a race promoter. Where does your interest in business management come from?
I don't know, but whenever I was driving I was always interested in what was going on outside of [the race car]. In fact, I had a lot of input in what went in to the teams I drove for, in terms of people and things like that. So I was really in to that side of it. Dad never really was. He just cared about driving, but the business part of it peaked my interest. For me, I've been really lucky. I've had a great career and then, whereas other athletes — whether drivers or ball players — have had great careers and then afterward they didn't know what to do with themselves, I'm really lucky to have this, to have a reason to wake up in the morning. It's not easy. It's a great challenge and a great motivator and I have fun doing it.
Besides this race, you also took on the task of reviving this season's race in Milwaukee and did quite well. Why do you think you had success there?
I think one, we really tried to get the city more involved, to get the local businesses more involved than they had been and we tried to deliver more of a bang for the people's dollar. Not just having a race, but bringing a festival atmosphere there, which we really wanted to do there because Milwaukee is the city of festivals. And I think we did a great job. The people of all ages had a blast. The whole infield was a festival, everything from the snake pit for the partiers to the family fun zone for the kids. I think our team did a great job.
Are there any similarities between here and there?
Actually, what we tried to do was take some of what we've done in the past at street races and take that flavor to an oval. And I think it went over really well. It's what street races are all about. They are like festivals. They're all about partying and having fun, not just coming out for the race. There is something happening all the time and that is what makes it fun.
Mayer told me tweaks are being made to the track.
Yeah, we're making a few spots wider, getting rid of the chicane on the main straight-away that will probably make the speeds at least 10 mph faster and open up better passing zones into Turn 1. And, we're making Turn 1 a bit wider, as well. So hopefully, it will make it a little better passing area.
Mayer said some of the changes would make the course more difficult, more challenging. Do you see that?
I don't know if it will make it more challenging. I just think it will make it better for racing. I think the biggest complaint the drivers had was the chicane and being a little bit narrow in Turn 1. So we're trying to answer, fix that. I really believe it's going to make a big difference.
Did you like tough, hard courses when you were a driver?
Oh, yeah. I think the tougher the track the more your talent stands up or shows up. So, yeah, I don't have any problems with this track being tough.
And, finally, have you had one good laugh since starting work on this race?
Not yet. (Pause) But it hasn't been a horrible experience either. It's been, let's say, a challenge and we're making headway with it.
Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.
Grand Prix of Baltimore
Friday, Aug. 31 to Sunday, Sept. 2
Prices range from $15 to $185 for adults and $5 to $140 for children 12 and under, depending on the location, day, etc. See RaceOnBaltimore.com for more information and to purchase tickets.
Passes for 2012 Grand Prix of Baltimore parking are available through Parking Panda. For more information, visit Parking Panda's website.
SCHEDULE OF EVENTS
FRIDAY, AUG. 31
7:30 a.m.: Gates open
8-8:30 a.m.:USF2000 practice
8:40-9:10 a.m.: Star Mazda practice
9:30-10 a.m.: Group A IZOD IndyCar Series practice
10-10:30 a.m.: Group B IZOD IndyCar Series practice
10:50-11:50 a.m.: ALMS practice
12:10-12:55 p.m.: Firestone Indy Lights practice
1:15-1:45 p.m.: USF2000 qualifying
1:55-2:25 p.m.: Star Mazda qualifying
2:45-3:45 p.m.: IZOD IndyCar Series practice
4:05-5:05 p.m.: ALMS practice
4:45-5:45 p.m.: IZOD IndyCar Series autograph session/fan village
5:10-5:25 p.m.: ALMS qualifying GTC
5:25-5:40 p.m.: ALMS qualifying GT
5:50-6:05 p.m.: ALMS qualifying LMPC
6:05-6:20 p.m.: ALMS qualifying LMP1&2
7 p.m.: Gates close
SATURDAY, SEPT. 1
7:30 a.m.: Gates open
8-8:40 a.m.: Firestone Indy Lights practice
9-10 a.m.: IZOD IndyCar Series practice
10:20-10:45 a.m.: ALMS warm up
11:05-11:45 a.m.: Firestone Indy Lights qualifying
12:05-1:20 p.m.: IZOD IndyCar Series qualifying Firestone Fast Six
1:40-1:45 p.m.: USF2000 pre-race/DSYE
1:45-2:15 p.m.: USF2000 race #1
2:30-3:30 p.m.: IZOD IndyCar Series autograph session/fan village
2:30-2:35 p.m.: Star Mazda pre-race/DSYE
2:35-3:05 p.m.: Star Mazda race #1
3-4:30 p.m.: ALMS pre-race
4:30-6:30 p.m.: ALMS race
6:30-6:45 p.m.: ALMS post-race
7 p.m.: Gates close
SUNDAY, SEPT. 2
7:30 a.m.: Gates open
9:45-10:15 a.m.: IZOD IndyCar Series warm up
10:35-11:15 a.m.: USF2000 race #2
11:35 a.m.-12:15 p.m.: Star Mazda race #2
12:42-1:42 p.m.: Firestone Indy Lights race
1:55-2:40 p.m.: IZOD IndyCar pre-race
2:45-5 p.m.: IZOD IndyCar Series race
5-5:30 p.m.: IZOD IndyCar Series post-race
7 p.m.: Gates close
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