Grand Prix of Baltimore hits the brakes as scheduling issues derail race's future

Labor Day weekend event may have needed more than three years to take hold

The decision to suspend the Grand Prix of Baltimore for at least the next two years could not have come as much of a surprise to anyone who paid attention to the intrigue that surrounded the third edition of the IZOD IndyCar Series event over Labor Day weekend.

By most accounts, the Sept. 1 race over the Inner Harbor street course was — quite literally — a smashing success, featuring enough fender-bending excitement to keep even the most casual fans entertained until Frenchman Simon Pagenaud took the lead with seven laps to go and cruised to his second victory of the season. But it was obvious at the time that the entire three-day event was running under a caution flag.

City officials and race organizers envisioned the Grand Prix becoming a Labor Day tradition, joining the Preakness Stakes to give Baltimore bookend signature events for the summer vacation season.

Instead, a conflict with two big Labor Day weekend events made it impossible to schedule the race in 2014 and 2015. M&T Bank Stadium already had scheduled a major college football spectacle between Ohio State and Navy on Aug. 30, 2014, and an American Legion convention wil take over the downtown area the following year.

During this year's Grand Prix buildup, officials expressed the hope that they might find another weekend to stage the race next year and keep the event alive, but they knew how tough that was going to be with the Orioles regularly at Camden Yards every summer and the Ravens taking up most of the other weekend dates from late August on.

No doubt, the news that the race has been put on hiatus for two years — which, most likely, will spell its permanent demise — will be music to the ringing ears of the downtown residents who hated the noise, the traffic snarls, the light-rail shutdowns and the way the Inner Harbor area looked with all those concrete racing barriers everywhere. It'll also end the controversy over the funding of the event, which did not turn a profit during its three years of existence.

It may also have the unintended consequence of magnifying Baltimore's reputation as a scheduling-challenged city. The Grand Prix's likely stoppage comes just one week after the defending Super Bowl-champion Ravens had to play the NFL's nationally televised Thursday night season opener on the road because of an Orioles game already scheduled for Sept. 5.

Apparently, as Al Michaels told just about every sports fan in America during NBC's Ravens-Broncos telecast, we're not very good at planning ahead. The fact that Michaels was sorely misinformed about the actual facts of the scheduling snafu and basically laid it at the doorstep of the Orioles was just a bonus.

The Grand Prix did evoke some mixed emotions and did not deliver on all that was promised to the local businesses that hoped to benefit from a crowded holiday weekend downtown, but it did succeed in giving Baltimore an image boost from the national and international television broadcasts.

For a town that gets too much of its worldwide publicity from "The Wire," several hours of well-framed cityscapes and scenic harbor backdrops during a sporting event that draws a global television audience couldn't help but enhance Baltimore's tourist appeal.

Sure, it was a hassle for a week or so, but it was fun and exciting and different. It probably didn't knock the socks off the Artscape crowd, but to each his or her own. Personally, I wouldn't know a Matisse from a "Mad Men" poster, but that doesn't mean I don't appreciate how important our annual July art festival is to the fabric of city life, despite the occasional road closure.

Given time, the Grand Prix might have evolved into something akin to the Preakness and gained more universal acceptance from city residents, but — because of our ambivalence and inability to plan more than a year or so ahead — we'll probably never know.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog, and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Friday mornings at 9 on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.



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