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Race On officials optimistic as third Grand Prix arrives

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In the command center of the Grand Prix of Baltimore, Tim Mayer, the race's general manager, fielded a few phone calls, answering a couple of questions. But that was it.

Preparations for the Grand Prix were running several hours ahead of schedule the day before Friday's qualifying races. In the cavernous room — Mayer asked that its location not be divulged — police and others studied 15 big-screen televisions showing camera feeds and maps.

"It's not like it was last year," he said. "That we did with sheer energy, breakneck until the very end."

Now in its third year, the three-day racing festival begins at 8 a.m. Friday with practices for the various circuits that will race Saturday and Sunday. Ticket sales remain on pace, Mayer said, without elaborating. Seats are available; Race On, the event organizer, said it expects a large walk-up crowd, especially if there's no rain in the forecast.

"A lot of our final push is going to depend on what people see when they turn on the television," Mayer said.

Most forecasters are calling for a chance of thunderstorms Sunday, during the weekend's premier event, an IndyCar race. Race On purchased "rain insurance," but it will kick in only if there's a "deluge," Mayer said.

Rain or not, residents and businesses around downtown are coping with the inconvenience of a 2.4-mile, high-speed racetrack occupying critical crossroads around the Inner Harbor. Traffic was snarled Thursday. Some residents left town, some businesses shut down, but many others have embraced the racing festival.

Mayer has led Race On's efforts to become a better neighbor. He largely devised a way to shorten the time needed to build the track from more than a month to 21 days in a way that limited road closures. His goal this year is to show that the race can appeal to racing fans as well as families and those who enjoy a festive atmosphere. He has emphasized adding entertainment and amenities for a more diverse crowd while making the operation less inconvenient for the city around it.

But by Thursday morning's rush hour, the track's impact was undeniable. Cars coming into the city off Interstate 95 immediately got bogged down in traffic. It took Pavan Bhatia more than an hour to reach the California Tortilla restaurant he owns on Pratt Street from the highway.

Bhatia refused to pay the $5,000 race organizers wanted in order to give his patrons a clear view of the race. A blue scrim covered the fence outside his courtyard.

"It's just not worth the investment," he said. "People are coming for the race, not to spend here."

He'd had high hopes for the race the first year, projecting sales of $65,000, which is what he usually does during a large convention like Otakon. But revenue fell short and then plummeted more than 50 percent last year.

The Grand Prix has been a boon, however, to the nearby Pratt Street Ale House, which happily paid for a view of the race, said general manager Jorbie Clark.

"We're all for it," Clark said. "To have an event that is watched around the world on what would be a slow weekend, I don't get all the negativity about it. You've got to have things like this if you want your city to be vibrant for the people and businesses."

Lana Jo Hill, an Upper Fells Point resident who works in Federal Hill, said the race simply causes too much disruption in the city. Her commute home Thursday took 40 minutes, and the race is impossible to escape.

"It doesn't matter where you go in the city," she said. "Head over to Canton, and it still sounds like there's a hive of angry bees nearby."

Many of the 1,271 workers at T. Rowe Price's corporate headquarters on East Pratt Street will work elsewhere Friday, though the office will be open for those who want to come in, said Brian Lewbart, a spokesman for the investment management firm.

"We've offered people flexible work arrangements to work remotely, and for many people that means from home," Lewbart said.

Others will work at the company's Owings Mills campus or at a disaster recovery center in Linthicum that will open Friday to accommodate workers. The backup center is reserved for emergencies or occasions such as the race, he said.

"I think it's safe to say the majority of associates will not be working in the office, and that has as much to do with location, being literally right on the course and the noise of the cars, as with commuting and road closures," Lewbart said. "We literally front the course."

Energy supplier Constellation, owned by Chicago-based Exelon, also is keeping its downtown offices open, but "employees have been advised to discuss alternative work arrangements with their supervisors as necessary," spokeswoman Kelly Biemer said in an email.

Verizon's office at 1 E. Pratt St. has been mostly empty since Wednesday, after employees were told they would not be able to get into the parking garage after 7 a.m. that day, said Sandy Arnette, a spokeswoman. The office's workers have settled temporarily at area Verizon offices or worked from home, she said.

"We are in the center of the racetrack, and you can't get access to the garage," Arnette said. But thanks to laptops and smartphones, "we can get our jobs done anywhere."

Usha Salon & Day Spa on East Fort Avenue in Federal Hill no longer tries to stay open during Grand Prix weekend.

"We tried to remain open once, and it was a mess," said Gayatri Gupta, an owner. "To start with, our staff couldn't get in. It was a mess for them to get in, and then the customers couldn't get in. It was not worth it for us to keep the business open and go through that expense."

The salon will close more than an hour early on Friday, around 6 p.m., and not open at all on Saturday.

Race patrons must submit any bags brought into the course for searches by guards manning the entrances, a new measure prompted by the Boston Marathon bombing, but that's about it for new security, Mayer said.

"This event isn't as porous as an event like a marathon, obviously, and we felt good about our existing plan," he said. "That being the case, we're still going to have people being not too shy about looking through the bags carried in."

J.P. Grant, the Columbia financier who shouldered the financial burden of running the race, spent part of Thursday walking the streets and talking with potential customers. Grant has said he expects to lose money on the race again this year, but not as much.

The future of the race depends on increased revenue and finding a date to run in the coming years. Events scheduled for M&T Bank Stadium and the Baltimore Convention Center in 2014 and 2015 have pushed the race from Labor Day, and Grant is working to find another weekend that could work.

"We're going to work it out," Mayer said. "Is there a percent chance that we can't find a date? Sure. But I really think that once we sit down and have all the facts, we will find a time to run it."

On Thursday, Mayer addressed a group from New Jersey involved in trying to plan a Formula One race in Weehawken, N.J., explaining the complicated web of entities involved in putting on Baltimore's Grand Prix. The New Jersey group has struggled with many of the same issues that have hindered the race here: lack of financing, public opposition and the need for sponsorship dollars.

"You guys know it. You can't just say there's going to be a race," he said. "There's so much to deal with. But it can be incredibly rewarding."

Baltimore's race has taken a "quantum leap" toward fulfilling the promise that city leaders saw when they approved the race in 2010, Mayer said. A year ago, he spent the Thursday before the race scurrying around the site, checking every facet of the operation. His slower place this year shows the race operation can continue to evolve and become less difficult for the city, he said.

Grant said he'll watch this year's event with clear eyes. For a businessman with no experience in racing — or running a big-time sports event — last year was bewildering. He now feels better able to evaluate whether the Grand Prix is right for the city.

"Hey, you've got to try things," Grant said. "This city has so much to work with. It has so much promise. So let's try things like this. Let's see what we can build."

Baltimore Sun reporter Lorraine Mirabella contributed to this article.

chris.korman@baltsun.com

twitter.com/chriskorman


Baltimore Grand Prix 2013 news from The Baltimore Sun


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