Baltimore City

Grand Prix of Baltimore aims to avoid problems of 2011 race

Although organizers of this year's Grand Prix of Baltimore got a late start — taking over with a little more than 100 days to spare — they say the event will run more smoothly because of lessons learned from last year.

Over the past few months, new operator Race On LLC has tweaked the event plan, responding to issues such as complaints that roadside barriers limited access to Oriole Park at Camden Yards and that downtown restaurants saw little spillover business during the 2011 inaugural race.

As a result, construction of barriers and bleachers — which can restrict the flow of pedestrians and vehicles — was shortened from 45 days to 30 days. And races will end earlier, by 7 p.m., giving attendees more time to have dinner downtown.

"Really, the best way for us to approach this has been to sit down with the people who lived through it last year and listen to the details of what went right and what went wrong, and then sit down with those same people and say, 'OK, for the things that went wrong, what can we improve?' " said race general manager Tim Mayer. Still, he said, an ideal run-up to such an event would last closer to 18 months.

"They're not like huge, silver-bullet lessons, but it's like a thousand little things that add up," said Bob Maloney, Baltimore's emergency manager, who will spearhead the city's Grand Prix operations for the second year in a row. "I just think as a city we're more comfortable ... setting up a racetrack in the center of Baltimore."

Local business leaders said they agree, and have seen improvements in the planning that promise to make this year's Grand Prix, Aug. 31 through Sept. 2, less of the bust it proved to be for many restaurants and stores last year.

"My sense is that people are hopeful with these improvements," said Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore. "Everybody has their fingers crossed, and they appreciate the changes."

Based on hours of conversation with public- and private-sector leaders, organizers said, they have tweaked a slew of logistical details to avoid last year's missteps, including streamlining pedestrian traffic patterns and shortening pre-race construction schedules.

Among the changes:

•New gates have been built into the barrier system at street level near each of the pedestrian bridges to alleviate backups that occurred on bridges last year. Additional traffic-control officers will be posted in areas that proved prone to backups last year, such as along Pratt Street near the Baltimore Convention Center and near pedestrian bridges.

•Charles Street will be reopened to traffic following racing events each night, unlike last year, when it was closed for the entire race weekend. Interstate 395 will remain open in both directions until after the Orioles game Thursday night, Aug. 30; last year, the highway was partially closed earlier in the week.

•The bottom level of the Orioles' stadium will be available for emergency shelter during severe weather. When a lightning storm came through the city during last year's event, officials evacuated bleachers but struggled with finding shelter for attendees.

New partnerships in the city are continuing to roll out as well. On Monday, race organizers and National Aquarium officials announced a deal for a seven-day aquarium ticket for the week of the Grand Prix that will earn buyers a 10 percent discount on their race tickets.

Last year's Grand Prix attracted about 160,000 people and had an overall business impact of almost $47 million, in addition to generating more than $1.68 million in city taxes and $2.08 million in state taxes, according to an economic impact study by Pittsburgh-based Forward Analytics Inc. on behalf of the city.

Despite having recently landed its largest sponsor to date in Chrysler Group's Street and Racing Technology, Columbia-based financier and Race On head J.P. Grant has said his group is prepared to lose money on this year's Grand Prix.

But his group intends to pay its debts, he said.

Mayer said that about 75 percent of this year's vendors returned from last year, and that Race On has worked closely with some of the vendors who were never paid last year to make sure their relationship with the Grand Prix goes well this year.

Mayer said the company has also reached out to local business leaders to ask what they'd like to see this year.

"This is really important for us because we intend to be neighbors for a long time here in Baltimore, and we intend for and want Labor Day weekend to be a success for everyone," Mayer said. "We've had to get over a lot of skepticism that came with [taking over the race] as a result of the operation last year, but I think, again, it's a matter of saying what you're going to do and then following through."

Mayer declined to say how many tickets had been sold for the event as of Monday, but in another first for the race, organizers began selling sharply discounted general admission tickets Monday on the deal website Living Social, a move they said was designed to draw people to the race who would not likely have attended otherwise.

"We're trying to target the Internet-savvy group," said John Lopes, president of Andretti Sports Marketing, noting that the deal is aimed at residents of nearby states. "It's a way for us to reach 3.5 million people outside of Baltimore."

More than 600 tickets had been sold through Living Social as of Monday evening, according to the site's count. Lopes said unlike last year's organizers, his company would not be giving away tickets.

Local business leaders, including those with the Orioles, said they have noticed and appreciate the company's efforts to address problems, and said communication between them and Race On officials has been far better than with last year's race operator, Baltimore Racing Development.

That communication, in turn, has led to collaborative approaches to perceived problems, such as unpredictable restrictions on pedestrian traffic for weeks before last year's races, they said.

"They've done a better job of making downtown more easy to navigate," said Kevin Cummings, the Orioles' director of ballpark operations, who said Orioles fans park their cars throughout the downtown area and were at times left confused or frustrated with race preparations last year.

Race On has made it a point to keep pedestrian paths between the light rail and Camden Yards open through Thursday night, Aug. 30, Cummings said, and has provided the Orioles with detailed information as to when restrictions will occur.

The Orioles have seven home games between this Friday and the Grand Prix, and are battling for a postseason spot for the first time in years.

"The team is playing better, the games that we have currently leading up to the Grand Prix event are potentially a whole lot more meaningful than they may have been in previous years, so that makes it even more important for us to protect that experience," Cummings said.

The Ravens also have a preseason game at M&T Bank Stadium this Thursday.

Fowler said the best of all the changes is the early end to the races, which should mean that more Grand Prix attendees will stay in the city for dinner.

He said improvements to access points in and out of the race venue will also benefit local business owners. Last year, many people who might have patronized a downtown business or restaurant did not because they didn't want to go through the hassle of getting in and out of the race venue, Fowler said.

Some of the changes are based on a better understanding of the nature of the crowd at the Grand Prix, said the city's Maloney.

"It wasn't a Preakness crowd. We didn't have an abundance of alcohol consumption or things of that nature," Maloney said. "Given the family orientation of the event, and given that we didn't have any major [problem], we're going to adjust our resources accordingly."

Maloney said city emergency officials are excited about working this year's Grand Prix.

"The two things the city has to worry about is the large number of people in the downtown area and being able to manage that, and also the implications of that effect on the rest of the city," Maloney said. "Collectively in public safety, we worked so hard on this event and it turned out so well that I think from the officer to the firefighter, everybody is happy that we're doing it again."

Baltimore Sun reporter Julie Scharper contributed to this article.