Grand Prix off to a bumpy start

A bumpy patch along Pratt Street that sent racecars airborne Friday meant a slow start for the first day of the Grand Prix of Baltimore, the much-anticipated reprise of an event that converts city streets into an adrenaline-inducing fast track.

The 2-mile racecourse through the heart of the city's tourist district shut down intermittently while crews worked to resolve the springboard effect of the light rail tracks at Howard and Pratt streets. That interrupted practice and led to the cancellation of qualifying rounds for drivers, who will compete in races this weekend.

Fans, like Matt Finnerty of Sparrows Point, were frustrated by the delays.

"It seems like I've been here three hours and I've seen — maybe — 30 minutes of racing," said Finnerty, who used the downtime to cool off in the air-conditioned Baltimore Convention Center.

Bill Kreutzer of York, Pa., said it was a good show, but the bumpy ride didn't make for a good race. Kreutzer joined thrill-seekers who laced their fingers through chain-link fences that lined the perimeter of the course and watched as the cars took flight over the light rail tracks that created a bump in the track.

"They need to fix it," he said. "It's not safe."

Driver Simon Pagenaud's car jumped nearly 3 feet off the ground as he hit the tracks during IndyCar's morning practice. He said he was more shaken than injured in the incident.

"I was a bit shattered at the time when I landed," said Pagenaud, who did not race here a year ago. "I felt the pain go up my back and neck when I landed."

Organizers tried to grind down the concrete near the tracks to flatten the roadway. 

That failed.

Next, crews installed small turns using tire stacks, called chicanes, that were intended to slow the drivers down.

"Granted, we're here to put on a show, but getting airborne in an IndyCar isn't part of that show," said Tony Cotman, whose company NZR Consulting built the track and Friday night installed a last-minute ashpalt chicane to slow drivers. The added turn will reduce speed from 125 miles per hour to about 80 miles per hour.

The track retooling cut IndyCar's practice sessions short and threw the entire schedule off as organizers considered solutions. They spoke with drivers and briefly considered suspending racing for the day. The incident also cost two minor series their qualifying periods and pushed IndyCar's second practice session back an hour.

Coming out of last year's Grand Prix, drivers raved about the course but had one request: get rid of the chicane slowing the front stretch down Pratt Street, where the racecars could reach speeds of up to 180 mph. They envisioned an unimpeded path — and frequent passing — down the stretch, where many of the grandstands are set up. But the tracks were simply too bumpy.

The temporary chicane on Friday forced drivers to make only two slight turns — a right, then left — and preliminary plans were to have the permanent one do the same. Last year's required three turns, taking away even more speed.

"We lost some time today, but I think that was some good quality time at the end there," said Beaux Barfield, IndyCar's president of competition. "With the proper chicane that we will install tonight, that will make the track different enough that they'll be able to go out and adapt to it pretty quickly and we'll have a good productive session in the morning."

Buck Weeks of Ellicott City said the course work didn't bother him.

"With racing, that kind of stuff is going to happen," said Weeks, as he strolled with friends down a corridor lined with food trucks and merchandise. "To go to a race and not expect a hiccup is unrealistic."

At the inaugural Grand Prix last year, construction work along the course delayed the first day of the race by 51/2 hours. But that was just a prelude to the problems.

The group that ran last year's race, Baltimore Racing Development, failed to pay $1.5 million in city taxes and fees. That led to the city's decision to sever its contract with the group. A second, Downforce Racing, took over but dissolved this spring, leaving plans for this year's race in shambles.

The city then entered into an agreement with Race On Baltimore. The group took over about three months ago.

The event will continue today with the French-inspired American Le Mans Series, which features exotic cars like Corvettes, Porsches and Vipers "on steroids," said Jade Gurss, director of communications for Indianapolis-based Andretti Sports Marketing, which was tapped by Race On to help put on the event. On Sunday, the IZOD IndyCar Series race will conclude the event.

The area surrounding the racetrack took on a festival-like atmosphere Friday. Vendors were slinging $8 beers on the sidewalk. Bands performed on stage. A family fun zone featured a Ferris wheel and jump houses. Mechanics were on hand in a paddock to talk to "gearheads," or racing fans, Gurss said.

"Wear comfortable shoes and sunscreen, and come out and explore," Gurss said. "We're a sport that you have to see in person to get the visceral appeal. You feel the rumble when the cars go by."

Last year, the three-day event drew about 150,000. Organizers declined to release their estimates and ticket sales Friday, and police did not have an attendance count.

Baltimore Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said no significant incidents were reported. Many downtown streets were clogged with traffic throughout the afternoon because of race closures.

The race delayed city bus routes as long as 45 minutes in some places, according to Terry Owens, spokesman for the Maryland Transit Administration. To help lessen the delays, the administration had an extra 10 buses positioned throughout the city. More than 500 buses run each day.

Owens said transit officials negotiated with race organizers to see that the light rail tracks weren't damaged when concrete around the tracks was ground down to flatten the surface before the chicanes were installed.

"We had some of our people there to ensure that there was nothing done to jeopardize the safety of the system, and we're satisfied with what they've done," Owens said.

Robin Miller, a racing analyst for the SPEED channel, said the light rail tracks are particularly hard for IndyCar drivers to deal with because the open-wheel cars ride close to the ground. Drivers "were worried about the engines and gearboxes being separated," he said.

Miller said a bumpy course can make for a more thrilling experience for fans but could also pose hazards to drivers.

"The fans want to see drivers be challenged, and bumps are challenging," Miller said. "But bumps are one thing, launching pads are another."

Paul and Bridget Moeller of White Marsh said they weren't annoyed in the least over the situation involving the light rail tracks. The couple, who booked a downtown hotel for the weekend, arrived at 8 a.m. Friday.

"We came last year and thought it was a great first attempt," Paul Moeller said. "It was a world-class event. To me, the second year is almost as important as the first year, because this makes it an annual event."

Baltimore Sun reporters Sandra McKee and Julie Scharper contributed to this article.