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Organizers hope IndyCar race mingles sport, spectacle in Baltimore

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Pratt Street has a rich history in Baltimore lore. It's old enough that the street has been identified on city maps dating back as far as 1801.

But in August of 2011, it will experience something it hasn't seen in its previous 200 years: Cars driving 185 mph.

That's the speed that IZOD IndyCar Series officials estimate competitors will be able to reach on the Pratt Street straightaway in the Baltimore Grand Prix, which will make its debut in Charm City next summer. And if that's hard for you to conceptualize, you're not alone.

That's part of the appeal, and one of the reasons why city officials and race promoters are predicting more than 100,000 will show up to to watch next year, and that a five-year agreement between IndyCar and the city to host a road race will turn into a annual summer event in Baltimore that will have a $70 million economic impact on the city.

It has the potential to be both a sporting event and a spectacle.

"It's a sport that once it gets a hold of you, it's hard to get rid of," said IndyCar driver Graham Rahal, one of the sport's rising stars. "The adrenaline, and the excitement behind it, is unlike anything else."

Historically, Baltimore isn't exactly a hotbed for racing, be it NASCAR or open-wheel. But Jay Davidson, the president of Baltimore Racing Development, and councilman William H. Cole IV, believe there is a hungry fanbase that is waiting to be tapped into, and that the city's reputation will benefit from a strong turnout.

"This race is really a game changer for the city of Baltimore," said Cole, who represents District 11. "It's going to put us on the front pages of newspapers all around the country for the right reasons. ... I think this race will do as much for Baltimore as the Preakness has done in recent years."

So what exactly can Baltimore expect next August? Terry Angstadt, the president of the commercial division of Indy Racing League, said there should be between 24 and 27 race teams entered in the event next year, and that will almost certainly include some of the best drivers in the world.

Martyn Thake, who designed the 2.4-mile course that will weave its way around the Inner Harbor, Camden Yards and Russell Street, said the first priority for race officials will be to repave the streets in the weeks prior to the event to make for a suitable racing surface.

"We're going to get rid of your potholes," Thake said.

Rahal, the son of legendary driver Bobby Rahal, said the IRL competitors are excited about coming to Baltimore in part because it will be a brand new track for all of them, and that no one will have the advantage of experience with the surface. It will be a wide-open race for all of them.

"The first time we come in here next year will be the first time anybody has seen the track or been on the track, so it will level the playing field for everybody," Rahal said. "The best drivers tend to shine on these types of surfaces."

Legendary IndyCar driver Al Unser Jr., a two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, was one of the influential people working behind the scenes to bring open-wheel racing to Baltimore, said he thinks even novice fans will be able appreciate just how good these drivers are, even if they couldn't tell you the difference between Dan Weldon and Danica Patrick.

"Our claim to the racing world is that these are the fastest cars in the world," Unser said. "The skill of the drivers is a culmination of things. It's the teams that they're with, it's their natural talent, their fire to win and their dedication to the sport. All that has to be put together in order to be a winner at this level."

Rahal, who got his first career win on a road course, said the skill level is going to be obvious once people see the race up close next year, even more so than if the race were being held on a traditional oval track.

"To get the maximum out of a car, especially on a street course, the amount of talent you have to have is huge," Rahal said. "It's tough.

And being that it's open wheel, the risk is much higher. The danger is much, much higher as to any other sport. On road courses, it's much easier to make a mistake. To it really puts a premium on driver skill."

kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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