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Champion driver Scott Dixon impressed with Grand Prix course

As IndyCar driver Scott Dixon pulled away from what will be the pit area for next month's Baltimore Grand Prix, he immediately noticed the smooth surface.

"They've done a fantastic job on the paving," Dixon, a two-time IZOD IndyCar Series Champion and the 2008 Indianapolis 500 winner, said after touring the course Tuesday. "And the crowning on the roads will make the course quite technical for the drivers. It will make it tough [controlling the car], but when you get it right, it is so good."

As Dixon continued around the course, which runs along Russell St. before turning down Pratt, the Auckland, New Zealand native became even more enthused.

"The streets are wide and forgiving, and there are at least three or four corners that should be good for passing," he said. "And you're right in the mix of this city. That's not usually the case. In the street races we have, we're usually pushed off to the side. In Toronto, we're on the outskirts. But here, we're right downtown. I love this. The downtown. The atmosphere. The excitement."

The Baltimore Grand Prix, which is scheduled to run September 2-4, is just a month away. The street paving is done, the concrete surfaces will be smoothed by the end of the week, and the grandstands are beginning to rise along Pratt and Light Streets. The outline of the course is being laid with large concrete blocks and wire fences.

This will be IndyCar's first foray into a major city on the Eastern seaboard, but there is no doubt it will also be Baltimore's showcase.

In fact, Al Unser Jr., the sixth-winningest IndyCar driver in history, who consulted on the course, says it was the city, its location and its history that appealed to him when he heard about the race in a casual conversation with Jay Davidson, the event's president and CEO, several years ago.

"Baltimore is a wonderful place," Unser said when reached by phone Monday. "It is one of the oldest cities in the United States. It has history, heritage and a military presence. And it has beauty from the harbor to Camden Yards — all of which will be shown off. And it has location. From the IndyCar side, it's right smack in the middle of the East coast."

Track designer Martyn Thake said he and the Baltimore Grand Prix "got lucky" with the streets of Baltimore.

"You want to make sure fans and sponsors can see the race," Thake said in a phone interview. "You want it to look good on TV. Professional drivers will race pretty much anywhere you build them a track. But there have been some street races over the years that were pretty boring for the drivers and that feeling seemed to spread over to the fans. But here, the streets are wide, the straightaways long, providing good passing turns at their end. And it's also beautiful."

Of course, some who live and work in the city have been irritated by the preparations for the race. Baltimore Police commissioner Fred Bealefeld, who spent time with Dixon Tuesday in support of the Smooth Operator campaign, made the most of his time with the driver to find out if all the angst has been worth it.

"I know very little about auto racing — in fact, this is as close as I've been to an IndyCar," Bealefeld said, standing between an IndyCar and a police cruiser. "I was interested in finding out how fast they are going to go, and I got excited when he told me they'd be doing about 175 mph on Pratt St. I don't think anyone has ever done 175 mph on our streets. That's exciting to me.

"And, as a Baltimorean, I've also endured the construction projects and I wanted to know if it has been worth it. He gave a pretty high appraisal of what we've done with our streets, and he left me with the feeling that all the construction has paid off."

The Smooth Operator program that reminds drivers that racing at high speeds and passing on curves may be good for professional race car drivers on a closed circuit, but it's not suitable for everyday drivers on public roads.

Bealefeld said the city does not reveal the number of police officers who will be deployed for race weekend, but said he'd give a full accounting after the event. He did allow, "It's going to be a whole lot."

Davidson was not nearly so reticent when asked where the Grand Prix stands in terms of preparation. At this point, Davidson said, approximately 73,000 of 90,000 grandstand seats have been sold for the three-day weekend. The event has also sold 78 of the 81 available suites.

"We're looking for more inventory for grandstand seats and suites," Davidson said. "The suite sales are through the roof, and I believe we're going to reach our goal of 100,000 for tickets sold for the weekend."

Constructionwill continue for a while, but both Davidson and Thakesaid the grandstands are on schedule and the barrier walls that will outline the track are ahead of schedule. The defining of pit lane will begin in a day or two.

And Dixon, who spent most of Tuesday morning giving members of the media rides around the track in a Honda Crosstour, said he "can't wait" to get back here for the race next month.

"People are beginning to see that it is real," Davidson said. "The Grand Prix is coming."

sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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