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Sports Auto Racing

Baltimore: More Sailabration, less car racing

This summer, the citizens of Baltimore and the surrounding region have experienced two special multi-million-dollar events that consumed the Inner Harbor area for days.

Each one took a lot of planning and cooperation. Each one was entertaining for those who attended. Local newspaper and TV coverage was full of both. National and international media paid attention to both. Thousands of photos have and will appear on Facebook and Flickr and be e-mailed. YouTube videos will continue to be posted all year.

One event was a series of high-tech autos racing through our streets for prizes, fame and glory and for those who could buy a ticket, while the other was a parade of historic tall ships and navy vessels that came to spend time to commemorate and illuminate history, educate and entertain all who wanted to come participate.

Personally I enjoy both types of event. We own a small sports car and a small sailboat. They both provide us with freedom from the everyday world, so my following comments are not biased as car race vs. sailing ships from that viewpoint.

The main observation that I want to make is that Sail Baltimore's Sailabration event, in cooperation with OpSail 2012, was an natural event totally suited to who and what Baltimore is, a maritime city that came into being because of the port that existed here for over 20 years before the town that became Baltimore emerged. The Grand Prix of Baltimore is an artificial creation that literally physically divides the city. It forces compromises on the sport because of the nature of our streets which are more dangerous for the drivers than they normally experience on a racetrack. There wasn't one word of negative feeling or bad press expressed about Sailabration. The Grand Prix has been a constant stream of controversy about its real value to the city.

I understand Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's desire to improve the national and international image of Baltimore. I believe that is a commendable and appropriate goal. Baltimore is more than what the world perceives from its depiction in HBO's critically-acclaimed, "The Wire."

I wanted to give the Grand Prix a chance, and after observing two auto racing events, my opinion is that you can't effectively fight a truthful image that is incomplete with an artificial image that creates dissent among the merchants and the people of the city whose image you're attempting to improve. My advice is to embrace the heritage of who we are and what we are and use that to not only create a better image but to help solve our deeper problems.

This is a maritime city, that's why it's here. Its location made sense for trade with the world and for immigration. We built fast clipper ships in Fells Point for a reason — to make more money more quickly. We built Liberty Ships on Key Highway for a reason — to defeat Adolph Hitler and free the world from fascism. Our ancestors did a great job of both. More immigrants came here than other port in America except Ellis Island, mainly because of the B&O Railroad and its direct link to the promise of the West.

This was a growing city until the early 1950s. For the first time since then, the population has stabilized and not shrunk. We still continue to have problems with drugs, violence, schools and employment. But you can see and feel a movement toward a healthier city that works for more people.

Sailabration worked on all counts. It created no problems for the citizens or the participants and it brought an influx of tourism dollars into the city. It was a feel good win-win. No matter how much good intention or money goes into it or how much you like auto sports, the Grand Prix is never going to be that for Baltimore.

The last major event in the city that worked as well as Sailabration was the Volvo Ocean race. I think that we need to reflect on that and learn a lesson. Let's stop spending millions of corporate and public dollars on an artificial event that causes more problems than it solves. Let's focus that resource on who we really are. Historic Ships of Baltimore could use that support to help bring steady tourism to the Inner Harbor. The Liberty Ship John Brown could use that support, the Pride of Baltimore II, the NS Savannah, the Baltimore Museum of Industry with its Tug Baltimore could use it to help educate our children. The Maritime Academy can use support for its students who want to learn jobs of substance. Sail Baltimore can use that money and volunteer support to create more sailing and maritime events that draw crowds of happy families to the Inner Harbor without putting up jersey barriers and chain link fences. They can create events that don't need to put up blue screens to block the view or require business to pay a fee for a view.

In the process of utilizing our roots, our children can learn about who we are and find out about good job opportunities in the maritime sector. Let's be smart about this and end the Grand Prix experiment now and embrace our existing maritime culture and heritage. This is Baltimore, not Indianapolis, Watkins Glen or Daytona.

Mike Wicklein, Baltimore

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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