Gathering speed for its third year, the Grand Prix of Baltimore looks to be on track, but behind the scenes a host of challenges make it increasingly possible this may be open-wheel racing's last year in the Inner Harbor.
Schedule conflicts for the next two years, questions about local and state support, and the sport's flagging popularity threaten the Grand Prix's future.
Grand Prix and city officials acknowledged this week that they are struggling to find weekends in August 2014 and 2015 to accommodate the three-day racing festival. Next year, an Ohio State-Navy football game takes over M&T Bank Stadium on Labor Day weekend, and a big American Legion convention comes the following year. Finding another date that doesn't conflict with events at the city's two stadiums and convention center has proved difficult.
"It's been very, very challenging," said Kaliope Parthemos, deputy chief for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. "We have to take into consideration the Orioles' schedule, the Ravens and what works for IndyCar, which leaves very few dates, if any."
J.P. Grant, the Columbia financier who stepped in to save the race about 100 days before last year's Grand Prix, said he remains committed to establishing the event as a yearly tradition if it proves economically viable for organizers and the city. But the race still lacks a title sponsor and, he said, it needs more financial support from local businesses and both the city and state government.
He is treating last year's event — which lost several million dollars — as a "baseline." He expects to see higher revenue this year, based on ticket sales, but still expects to lose money.
"The race is viable, I think," Grant said. "But we've got to find the right weekend that works for everyone involved, and we've got to make sure the state and city and the business community are really behind this."
IndyCar, meanwhile, continues to struggle. The once-popular sport no longer draws the TV viewers and crowds for races that it did in its heyday. A succession of CEOs lends an appearance of instability, as does the impending loss of its longtime title sponsor Izod.
IndyCar, which like the race itself is striving to show it is a stable, worthy sponsorship investment, wants to release its schedule by the end of September. But Major League Baseball also will be finalizing its schedule about that time, making it difficult for the city to commit to a Grand Prix date.
The Orioles, whose representatives did not return emails seeking comment about the Grand Prix, prefer to be on the road — as they are this year — for an extended stretch around the Grand Prix because of the congestion the track causes near Camden Yards.
The Ravens, meanwhile, have said they would like to use their stadium for revenue-generation beyond their home schedule by attracting college football events such as the Ohio State-Navy game in 2014 or large summer concerts. They also host open practices and have exhibition games there in August.
Running the Grand Prix also requires use of the Baltimore Convention Center, which generally is booked several years in advance.
"I think the only word I can come up with for this is 'frustrating,'" said Councilman William H. Cole IV, who represents the downtown district and championed bringing the race to Baltimore. "This schedule issue, it's just another obstacle. I think everyone is trying to work on it, but whether it can be worked out, I don't know."
Rawlings-Blake, who did not make herself available to speak about the Grand Prix, remains an ardent Grand Prix supporter, Parthemos said.
Cole and Tom Noonan, the president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, also believe the race has delivered on the promises made by its founders in 2009.
Baltimore Racing Development, the original organizer, said the event would have an economic impact of $70 million a year. The reality has been more in the $45 million range, according to studies paid for by the city and race organizers.
"That's still a very large number," said Noonan. "Everybody talks about Otakon," the anime conference that recently announced it had outgrown Baltimore and would move in 2017, "and that has one-fourth the impact."
The Grand Prix was originally billed as a way to draw between 100,000 and 150,000 visitors to downtown on Labor Day weekend, typically a slow time for the tourism business. An economic impact study funded by Race On after last year's race found that 37 percent of the 130,000 spectators came from outside of the Baltimore area.
The city's hotels felt the boost. In the three years before the first race, hotels were 62 percent full, on average, on the Friday and Saturday before Labor Day, Noonan said. In 2011, that number hit 81 percent — with average room rates jumping to $208 from $146 in 2008. Last year, hotels had a 78 percent occupancy on Labor Day weekend and charged an average of $181 a night.
"It has certainly helped fill some rooms, both here and around BWI Airport and elsewhere in the region, at higher prices," Noonan said.
City officials believe that the Grand Prix also burnished Baltimore's reputation as a destination. But the race never reached as many television viewers as originally hoped. While projections suggested that it would be seen by 3.5 million in the United States, domestic viewership for last year's IndyCar event reached only 247,000.
Meanwhile, the Grand Prix inconveniences many local businesses and those who live and work downtown. For example, the Maryland Science Center, a popular destination for families, closes for the weekend. Organizers shortened the time it takes to build the track and have managed to keep more of the city accessible during construction, but downtown still feels constricted for nearly a month.
The race also polarizes residents of nearby neighborhoods.
"I'd say it's 50 percent excited about the race, and then near 50 percent against it," said Bill Reuter, who has coordinated Grand Prix-related events for the Ridgely's Delight neighborhood association.
Those in favor of the event have embraced its festival nature, projecting movies about racing onto a white wall and sipping cocktails in 2012, he said. They've planned a big wheel race for this year.
But others in the neighborhood, which sits along the western side of the track, have chosen to leave town during the event. Amy Schneider's 2-year-old son enjoys seeing the cars, but she said the family leaves because the event is too much of a nuisance.
"There's just too much inconvenience for too long," Joanne Drummond added. "We're accustomed to big sporting events, but this ruins our quality of life in many ways for weeks, and it has not had the positive impact we hoped for on our local businesses."
The race came to Baltimore amid optimism for a rebirth of IndyCar's popularity. But the CEO hired to re-energize the sport was ousted after last season. And open-wheel racing continues to spin out with today's racing consumers. This year's Indianapolis 500, the sport's signature event, garnered a 3.8 television rating, the lowest ever and a 7 percent drop from 2012.
"This was something of a rebuilding year," acknowledged Mark Miles, IndyCar's new CEO.
Miles said IndyCar remains committed to hosting a race in Baltimore, as long as Race On can secure a date. He's pushing to make the circuit more appealing to fans by ending the season with a three-race series showcasing the circuit's three kinds of racing — on an oval like the Indianapolis 500, on a permanent road course and on a temporary track like the one in the Inner Harbor — while drivers chase points for the championship.
That would give the Grand Prix of Baltimore an opportunity to become a signature event.
"These have a chance to become really important for us, and Baltimore is in the discussion," Miles said.
After three years, though, those involved in planning the race have a better understanding of the impact of turning over a large, busy part of the city to what has increasingly become a niche sport.
Jay Davidson, who led original organizer Baltimore Racing, which struggled to pay bills owed to the city and vendors and lost its contract, is no longer sure the race will be successful in Baltimore.
"From where I stand now, I'm not convinced it can work," said Davidson, who acknowledges being jaded. "I hope it can, but I don't know. There's a lot to deal with."
The race's fate rests with Grant, the financier. He needs to negotiate a new date for the next two years and decide how much more money Race On can stand to lose.
"Our focus is on this year's race," Grant said. "After that, we need to sit down and see where we're at. I still see the potential. But I also see some things we need to work out."
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