Andretti to lead new Baltimore Grand Prix team

Racing legend Michael Andretti in Lexington, Ohio.
Racing legend Michael Andretti in Lexington, Ohio. (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore Sun)

Racing champion Michael Andretti is working on a last-minute effort to organize the Baltimore Grand Prix, teaming with two local businessmen to put together the Labor Day street racing festival, the mayor's office announced Thursday.

The new racing group, Race On LLC, will be headed by J.P. Grant, a Columbia-based financier with close ties to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, and Curtis Bay concrete contractor Greg O'Neill. They will provide the financial muscle behind the group, which must speed through preparations in 31/2 months.

Rawlings-Blake's administration, which had trumpeted deals with two previous racing groups that have since collapsed, announced the new deal in a news release Thursday and did not respond to repeated requests for further comment. City officials pledged to release more information Wednesday, after the city's spending board votes on the new contract.

Councilman William H. Cole IV, who participated in negotiations with the new team and racing sanctioning body IndyCar, said he was confident the race driver's company, Andretti Sports Marketing, could pull off the race in such a short time.

"There are probably very few groups that can step in at this point and have a race on Labor Day weekend," said Cole. "All of the obstacles that have previously existed by and large have been removed. We have a capable local company and an extremely competent promoter."

The Baltimore event and course, a two-mile stretch of roads near the Inner Harbor, was lauded by racing fans and drivers last year. But Baltimore Racing Development, the organizers of the inaugural race, fell apart soon afterward, leaving millions of unpaid debts to the city, state and contractors.

The latest contract marks the mayor's second attempt to find a new group to take over the race. In February, after weeks of clandestine negotiations, Rawlings-Blake and IndyCar handed the race over to Downforce Racing LLC, a company also composed of a racing insider and two local investors. That group began to disintegrate within weeks of the contract's ratification.

Rawlings-Blake's latest news release announcing the deal with Andretti repeats verbatim large sections of the February announcement. Her statement, however, changed.

"The Grand Prix was a great event for Baltimore that boosted our local economy and showcased our city on the international stage," Rawlings-Blake said. "This has been a difficult process, but Race On and Andretti Sports Marketing have what it takes to move forward and make this world-class sporting event successful for Baltimore."

The mayor's office also announced that it had severed its contract with Downforce. The team behind Downforce won early accolades from city and IndyCar officials but failed to meet benchmarks, leaving the city scrambling to find another organizer.

IndyCar leaders and Rawlings-Blake's administration have been privately meeting to hammer out an agreement for weeks. They have declined to provide details of the negotiations.

Andretti, the son of legendary driver Mario Andretti, started Andretti Sports Marketing in October. He had previously worked on races in St. Petersburg, Fla., and Toronto under the auspices of the Andretti Green team, which later dissolved.

He leads a team, Andretti Autosport, that competes in five racing series, including IndyCar.

Andretti appeared on the reality show "The Celebrity Apprentice" earlier this year but was soon fired by host Donald Trump. Days later, in mid-March, he took the reins of the Milwaukee IndyFest, which, like Baltimore's event, had been previously organized by a group that fell apart, leaving large debts.

Through a spokesman, Andretti declined to comment. Neither Grant, O'Neill nor IndyCar officials responded to requests for comment Thursday.

Racing and sports marketing experts had speculated that the Baltimore race would have to be canceled if ticket sales and sponsorship deals were not under way by the end of the month.

Racing expert Robin Miller said the new team has just enough time to organize the race. He said that Andretti would be able to tap into a deep network as he seeks sponsors.

"They have quite a few sponsors on their Indy cars," said Miller.

Miller, an analyst with the SPEED channel, said that Andretti tended to devote most of his efforts to his racing team and that other employees were focused on the Milwaukee race.

"He's more hands-on with the team than he'll be with the race production group," said Miller.

According to the mayor's office, Andretti Sports Marketing will arrange "sponsorships, public relations, marketing, hospitality, ticket sales, track build, grandstand layout, and logistics" for the race — imperative given the truncated timeline. City officials say they expect the new team to begin work immediately.

The new contract requires Race On to pay $50,000 to be shared by neighborhoods near the race course, and $300,000 to cover a portion of the city's services for the race. City officials have estimated that staffing the race with police officers, firefighters, traffic directors and maintenance workers will cost about $800,000. Taxpayers cover the rest of the tab.

The latest contract also requires that revenue from the 10 percent admissions and amusement tax, which the city charges for such events, be diverted to a "lockbox" escrow fund. City officials instituted this provision in the Downforce contract after Baltimore Racing Development, the first group, failed to pay nearly $500,000 in taxes.

Grant, whose Columbia-based firm, Grant Capital Management, has received city contracts, has been closely allied with the mayor for years. He gave the city $90,000 to keep pools open longer in 2010, after budget cuts threatened to curtail the swimming season. Grant and his relatives also donated to Rawlings-Blake's campaign last year.

Grant had contemplated working with another racing team earlier this year but withdrew his support before a proposal was formalized.

Greg O'Neill, the vice president of BMW Construction Specialists in Curtis Bay, had submitted a proposal along with Owings Mills businesswoman Sharon Grinnell to take over the race in January, but the city rejected that proposal in favor of Downforce.

City officials say that the contract with Race On and Andretti Sports Marketing will be voted on by the city's Board of Estimates next week. City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and Comptroller Joan M. Pratt voted against the contract with Downforce, but Rawlings-Blake and her two staffers on the board voted in favor of the deal.

A spokesman for Young said that the council president planned to again vote against the racing contract.

"He believes that the city's efforts and energies should be directed elsewhere," said spokesman Lester Davis. "He thinks the city should move on, and his vote will reflect that."

In the news release, Rawlings-Blake said the contract would undergo a six-day "open and transparent public review period," repeating language from the February news release. She instructed residents who wished to comment on the race to send her an email at mayor@baltimorecity.gov.