By Don Markus, The Baltimore Sun
1:42 PM EDT, September 5, 2011
Those planning ahead to the summer of 2012 can likely figure on Indy race cars returning to the streets of Baltimore for Labor Day weekend.
Will Power had barely crossed the finish line Sunday to win the IZOD IndyCar Series race at the inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix, but event organizers, IndyCar executives and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake were already looking ahead to next year.
All were in agreement about how well a holiday weekend worked. The crowds, estimated by organizers at well over 100,000 for the three-day event, seemed to back that up. So did the effusive comments of the drivers, who said the combination of the challenging course and enthusiastic fans made it as attractive a site as there is on the series.
"I've never been to a place for the first time that was this crowded and the fans were passionate," said veteran driver Tony Kanaan, who survived a scary wreck during practice Sunday morning to finish third behind Power and Oriol Servia. "I couldn't walk in the streets. Back in Brazil it's kind of like that. [Saturday] night I'm walking down to have dinner and it took me 45 minutes to walk four blocks because everybody was talking to me, taking pictures."
Another Indy veteran was succinct in his praise.
"You've got a gold mine here," Willy T. Ribbs said after competing in the Firestone Indy Lights race, his first Indy event in 17 years.
Asked about getting the same date for next summer, Baltimore Racing Development CEO and president Jay Davidson said he is hopeful of that happening. Not only would Davidson have to get IndyCar officials to agree, but he said he would have to talk with the Orioles and Major League Baseball "to make that happen" for as long as the event remained on the schedule.
Davidson said that he is also optimistic of securing a title sponsor for next year. "We've had some great feedback" from interested parties, he said.
Though the IndyCar calendar "is still up in the air", according to Amy Konrath, the circuit's director of communications, a potential logistical speed bump has been removed. The circuit caravaned from California to Baltimore last week and will be in Japan this week, but this is the final year for the Japan event.
Rawlings-Blake said that this year's crowds showed that Baltimoreans and other Marylanders "who traditionally looked at Labor Day as the last beach weekend of summer" can change their deep-rooted routines.
"Baltimore shows up for a big event, and they did again," Davidson said.
Terry Angstadt, president of the commercial division for the IndyCar Series, said Sunday night that he hoped to talk with Rawlings-Blake and other city officials in the next few days about solidifying the Labor Day weekend date, though a formal announcement would not likely take place until later this year.
Angstadt said that Baltimore filled a specific void on the IndyCar series schedule.
"After we left Richmond (Va.), we didn't have anything in the Middle Atlantic," Angstadt said. "We were able to attract fans from all over the East Coast."
It is not clear what kind of economic impact the event had in the region, but Grand Prix spokeswoman Edie Brown said it would be among several topics discussed at a news conference scheduled for Thursday.
Racing legend and racing team executive Roger Penske said he was "amazed by the great turnout" for a first-time event, comparing to the circuit's most successful street course race in Long Beach, Calif.
"It created a tremendous added value to the community," Penske said, adding that getting the same day locked in every year will give it "date equity."
Davidson admitted that mistakes were made in the first time event, alluding to the long delay before the start of practice Friday that was caused by last-minute work on the safety fencing. He joked about how he had to personally go around early Friday morning to open the port-o-johns.
By Sunday, those first-day glitches were forgotten and the focus was on the racing. Oriol Servia, whose popularity stemmed from the similarity of his name to a certain baseball team – though he was a lot more successful than his namesake by finishing second to Power – said that he would like to see some changes made to the 2.03-mile course itself.
"Honestly, if you look at history of what makes a good track and what makes a good event, it's a good fast race track," Servia said. "The fans come to see us do things that normal cars can't do. We can go through a corner at 170 miles an hour, a normal car can't do that. If a fan can see that, it would make them come back."
Servia suggested that the course be lengthened and the turns be made so that cars can go faster, but acknowledged that "even if the city loves the event, you're closing the streets for a week and I'm sure, as you all know, the longer the track is the more blocks you need of the city, the more difficult it is, so it is always a compromise."
Angstadt said that given the cost involved and the problems that closing more city streets would likely cause, changing the length of the course seemed unlikely.
For different reasons, changing the date of the event also seemed unlikely.
"I think it worked great," Angstadt said.
Reporter Susan Reimer contributed to this story.
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