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Baltimore's Indy Car fantasy

The promises are great, but would a Grand Prix deliver?

By Alexander E. Hooke

4:02 PM EDT, May 13, 2010

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Corporation, n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.

— Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

Big-time car racing, now among the most popular spectator sports, is coming to Baltimore.

If local officials and business leaders have their way, a Grand Prix event will be held in the city as early as August 2011. It is expected to draw more than 100,000 visitors to the city for a long weekend, bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars. (Presumably, they have never been in downtown Baltimore during a sweltering August heat wave.)

According to organizers, these visitors will gladly spend $2,000 for a three-day weekend that revolves around watching dozens of cars go endlessly around the same track, burned rubber sifting through the air, ethanol fumes seeping into spectators' lungs, fiery accidents grabbing their eyes, and dedicated fans swilling as much beer as humanly possible.

And Baltimore City, they audaciously claim, will profit. This claim is specious. The enduring promise of major short-term sporting events — that they generate increased jobs and significant tax revenue — has yet to be proven. Most of the jobs are temporary and without benefits. The tax revenue is couched in terms of contingency (expected attendance, weather, media coverage), so profits for the city are at best a vague projection.

Also disturbing is that city residents are not addressing the environmental aspects of this event. They seem oblivious to the fact that car racing is a nature-lover's nightmare. Race cars average 3 to 5 miles per gallon, depending on weather, speed, curves and surface of the track. During the three- to four-hour course drivers waste considerable rubber, going through five or six sets of tires. For ecologists, the so-called carbon footprint left by the Grand Prix is disastrous.

Then there is the gas-guzzling entourage. Like rock stars, drivers travel in their own luxury motor homes. A truck carries two cars. And a third van carries the memorabilia for marketing sponsorships, such as breweries and oil companies. Downtown traffic, already congested, will be a logjam for days as organizers set up stands and prepare the roads.

Jay Davidson, a corporate lawyer, is one of the chief proponents of this event. He understandably emphasizes that restaurants, hotels and businesses will benefit greatly from a Baltimore Grand Prix. He is also understandably quiet about how this will benefit mostly business owners and not the hundreds of thousands of citizens residing outside the five downtown communities that are guaranteed $100,000 annually from the race's organizers — ostensibly for community development but more likely to purchase community approval.

Finally, there is a side effect ignored by organizers and city officials. Race car fans, like most sports fans, imitate what they admire. When kids see Kobe Bryant make a twisting lay-up or Venus Williams crush a marvelous return, they rush outside and try the same. When Adelaide, Australia, hosted its first Grand Prix in 1986, there was a sudden spike in traffic accidents.

Fueled by a case of beer, the temptation to emulate their idols will be hard for some Grand Prix spectators to resist, as they hop in their cars and zip across Pratt Street at 90 mph, swerve between two MTA buses at 110 mph, then dart onto the JFX at 160 mph.

The odds that this event will benefit Baltimore are a virtual coin toss. If it goes well, corporate leaders can boast. If not, then, as Ambrose Bierce anticipated long ago, someone else will get the blame.

Alexander E. Hooke is a professor of philosophy at Stevenson University. His e-mail is ahooke@stevenson.edu.