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Grand Prix organizers seek a mix of hard-core fans and novices looking for a spectacle

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Nick Nicaise's first word was "car." While his childhood pals mooned over Mickey Mantle, he idolized driver Dan Gurney.

And when his wife glimpsed a grown-up Nicaise beaming as he flitted around the garage area at an IndyCar race, she told him, "You're acting like a 12-year-old girl at a Beatles concert."

Nicaise, a computer reseller from Catonsville by day, is one of the thousands of car nuts for whom the arrival of the Baltimore Grand Prix is an unexpected gift. These guys and gals might not be as visible as Ravens fans, but they record races on their DVRs every weekend, drive their own cars at tracks around the Mid-Atlantic and travel to see the pros burn rubber in Indianapolis, Toronto and California.

Grand Prix organizers are counting on these fervent fans to make up the core of their audience for the IndyCar event on Labor Day weekend. But they acknowledge that the hard-core fans won't be enough to make the race a success. They also must capture the casual fans who might watch a few races a year and, most importantly, the novices looking to witness a spectacle the likes of which the city has never seen.

Jay Davidson, president of Baltimore Racing Development, says he fell in the last category when he began working to bring the race to Baltimore. But he's confident that the idea of watching cars whiz down Pratt Street at 150 mph will be intoxicating enough to draw 110,000 to 120,000 fans over three days.

"When cars go by at the speeds they're going on a city street, it's shocking," he says in explaining the allure to the uninitiated. "But in kind of a cool way. I know it got my heart rate going."

Based on conversations with race organizers in other cities, Davidson expects the audience to be 25 percent "gearheads," 25 percent casual racing fans and 50 percent people who are "interested in the spectacle, the whole experience."

Beyond the sensory blast offered by the cars, organizers hope to woo non-fans with rock concerts, games for children and access to the paddock on the first floor of the Baltimore Convention Center, where race teams will prepare their vehicles.

"Those people have to feel like they had a good experience," Davidson says of the spectacle crowd. "We need them to want to come back."

The same could be said for the event's corporate sponsors, many of whom have little experience with the sport.

Davidson says race organizers have sold tickets to people from 47 states, with about 60 percent going to the Baltimore-Washington region and healthy cuts going to Philadelphia and New York as well. He says about 80 percent of grandstand tickets are sold but also expects significant walk-up purchasing if the weather is nice on Labor Day weekend.

The event will probably make an initial splash, says John Moag, chairman of Moag & Co., a Baltimore-based investment bank that specializes in sports.

"A lot of people are excited about it in the sense that they're thinking, 'Wow, this is cool and different. It could be a lot of fun,'" Moag says. "They will draw people at the beginning. It's a question of will they come back [next year]."

Moag, who chaired the Maryland Stadium Authority in the 1990s, wonders about the Grand Prix's long-term prospects, given the way similar races failed in Washington, Detroit and San Jose, Calif.

"It's a very risky event for a whole lot of reasons," he says. "This is an untested market for this kind of event."

Baltimore has never hosted an IndyCar or NASCAR race and has no reputation as an auto racing town, but hard-core fans say that has not prevented them from nurturing their interest over the years.

Bob Hasychak says his Washington branch of the Sports Car Club of America is one of the organization's largest regional groups and has more than 2,000 members. Hasychak, who lives in Northern Virginia, will volunteer as a flagger, steering cars on and off the track for the Baltimore Grand Prix races.

"We're going to be your fan base," he says. "Some people will come for the party, like at the Preakness or something like that. But we're people who love to hear the whine of a car going by."

Hasychak loves the sound so much that he began racing a Cobra five years ago at age 52. He particularly fancies road races, because they require drivers to stop, turn and shift gears, just like everyday motorists.

"I can relate to it," he says.

He couldn't believe his good fortune when a road race landed an hour from his house. He drove up to Baltimore a few weeks ago to walk the course with his wife.

It's a ritual "gearheads" have shared in the last month.

A grin lit Nicaise's face when he drove downtown recently and saw the walls and barriers going up along the race route.

"I actually drove the course," he says sheepishly. "I couldn't help myself."

Nicaise has brought his passion to his day job.

Though he is hopelessly in love with racecars, he knows that most clients of his company, computer and technology reseller CDW, are not. Nonetheless, he has found that customers love to interact with drivers and get up-close looks at how the exotic cars are put together. At the Grand Prix, CDW will sponsor a tent in conjunction with KV Racing and driver Takuma Sato.

"The access is great for our customers," he says. "We don't get that when we do things at Orioles and Ravens games. You can't sit on the bench at Camden Yards."

"I don't think people realize how big an event this is going to be for Baltimore," Nicaise says.

Steve Morgan of Parkton is a racing fan who has traveled to Delaware to watch NASCAR, but he puts himself in a more casual class than Nicaise or Hasychak. That did not stop him from snapping up a 12th-floor suite in the Renaissance hotel as soon as the Grand Prix was confirmed. He plans to entertain insurance clients in the space, which overlooks the race course.

"I'm not a fanatic, but I'm definitely looking forward to this," Morgan says. "I never remotely expected it. You watch road races in all these majestic, international cities and you don't think of Baltimore. This is something totally new for us."

He knows NASCAR fans around the area but isn't sure how the region will receive the open-wheel IndyCar style. "This will be a learning experience to see how they carry it off," Morgan says. "It'll be interesting to see what it turns into."

Many casual fans will congregate around the 80 hospitality suites organizers have sold to businesses.

Merritt Properties LLC, a Baltimore-based commercial real estate developer and landlord, signed up for a level of sponsorship that includes a 20-seat hospitality suite where the company will host business partners, contractors and firms that lease office space.

"It's really important for the business community to get behind this effort," says Scott Dorsey, Merritt's chief executive officer.

That means not only showing off company names and slogans but showing up in person.

"We'll end up with some tickets and can watch the race, and are planning on taking clients and business partners and enjoying what the race has to offer," Dorsey says. "We'll have a nice view of the pit lane and some turns."

M&T Bank, the first bank to sign up as a sponsor, will have a hospitality tent at Pratt and Light streets.

"I'll be there, and we've invited some of our better clients to share the event," says Mike Pinto, vice chairman of M&T and chairman and chief executive officer of the company's Mid-Atlantic division. "I've never been to a car race, especially a city car race, so I am looking forward to it."

Baltimore Sun reporter Lorraine Mirabella contributed to this article.

childs.walker@baltsun.co

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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