Baltimore City

Organizers rev up for Grand Prix

The first round of gleaming racecars will roar through downtown streets early Friday, marking the start of the second annual three-day open-wheel racing festival — and a victory for city officials and organizers who struggled to resurrect the event after last year's financial flop.

The chain-link fence encircling the two-mile stretch of roads near the Inner Harbor and Camden Yards will open at 7:30 a.m. Friday, and cars will speed through practice laps and qualifying races until 7 p.m. Saturday will feature the American Le Mans Series, patterned after the storied French race, and Sunday will culminate with the Izod IndyCar Series race, the main event in which Will Power is expected to defend his title.

This year's festivities, planned in about three months, are expected to be less elaborate than last year's and draw a smaller crowd. City officials chose a small group of local investors, headed by one of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's top donors, to organize the race in May, after two previous race groups had fallen apart.

The leaders behind Race On Baltimore — the name was chosen to dispel doubts about the event's prospects — say they have focused on improving the event's reputation and building a foundation for future years.

"This year is really about stabilizing, organizing and trying to be good neighbors," said Tim Mayer, general manager of the Grand Prix of Baltimore.

Mayer declined to say how many tickets had been sold to the event, but seating charts on Ticketmaster indicated late Thursday that hundreds of prime seats were available for all three days of the race. Tickets also will be sold at the race gates on each day, and Mayer said he expected strong walk-up sales.

"For us, it's not how many people we bring in the gate," Mayer said. "It's did we treat them well and did they have a good time."

Mayer said workers avoided blocking lanes of traffic while setting up barriers and delayed road closures until after the bulk of commuters and fans attending an afternoon Orioles game left the downtown area Thursday evening. Race preparations still snarled traffic Thursday, but fewer people complained about epic commutes than last year.

"For the most part, I'm getting the sense that the commute was better this year than last year," said Downtown Partnership president Kirby Fowler. "We are receiving some messages that some people are having a hard time on the far west side of downtown, but they're mostly finding alternate routes."

The run-up to last year's race was marked by months of traffic delays as workers moved curbs, medians and traffic lights in a $7 million city-funded construction project to prepare for the race. In contrast, road construction was confined to three weeks this year, and no traffic lanes were blocked until this week.

"The planning of the track build was better this year," said Councilman William H. Cole IV, who represents downtown and has been intimately involved with race preparations both years. "It was done in a more sequential manner and a shorter period of time."

This year's organizers have tried to head off complaints from merchants and restaurateurs in Little Italy and Federal Hill, who griped last year that racegoers stayed downtown and didn't patronize their businesses.

Organizers have installed more gates along the course and are allowing racegoers to re-enter the festival area after leaving. In addition, the festivities will wrap up at 7 p.m. each day in order to encourage fans, drivers and crews to patronize restaurants in surrounding neighborhoods rather than eat festival food.

"At 6 or 7, you're thinking, 'Where am I going to eat?' " said Mayer. "At 9 or 10, you're thinking, 'Where am I going to go to bed?' "

Fowler described the decision to end events earlier as "the best change in the whole race structure."

"The Grand Prix wants long-term support, and the best way to do that is to make sure that restaurants and downtown businesses are benefiting," Fowler said.

As workers hammered bleachers into place and locked in sections of fencing this week, restaurant owners and managers said they were scheduling more staffers and ordering food to prepare for an influx of diners.

Mark Underwood, the manager of the Kona Grill on Pratt Street, said last year's race "set company records in sales on a daily basis."

"We have kind of a captive audience here," said Underwood, noting that the restaurant, which specializes in sushi and seafood, is one of a handful within the course.

However, Underwood said the spike in business during the race barely outweighs the lost sales in the weeks leading up to the race. A high fence obscures the front of the restaurant from passers-by on the opposite side of Pratt Street, and Underwood said sales have been slow for the past few weeks.

Across the street, Pavan Bhatia, the owner of California Tortilla, said his hopes for record sales were dashed during last year's race.

Last year, Bhatia ordered large quantities of food, opened for breakfast and even stationed a food truck behind the Tex-Mex restaurant to feed racegoers. While sales were more brisk than on an average Labor Day weekend — traditionally a slow time for downtown businesses — the hordes of patrons promised by last year's race organizers never materialized, Bhatia said.

"We had a magician in here, a live band, a DJ, six Ferrari cars parked outside," Bhatia said. This year, he has booked a band to perform and ordered more food than usual but scaled back his expectations.

Bhatia said he doubted whether this year's race would even occur until construction began. "The part that makes me uncomfortable is that it has changed hands three times," he said.

The latest group, Race On, is headed by Columbia financier J.P. Grant, a top donor to Rawlings-Blake, and Greg O'Neill of BMW Construction Specialists in Curtis Bay. Andretti Sports Marketing, a company founded by racing champ Michael Andretti, supervises the race promotions.

The local group that organized last year's race, Baltimore Racing Development, pulled together an event that was lauded by IndyCar fans and drivers, but in the months after the race it became clear the group was falling apart financially.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who had staunchly defended the race, announced in the fall that Baltimore Racing Development had failed to pay $1.5 million in city taxes and fees. The group made its final payment on its $500,000 admissions and amusement tax bill last week.

After severing the contract with Baltimore Racing Development, Rawlings-Blake's administration hammered out a new deal with a company called Downforce Racing, but the team dissolved in the early spring without making any progress on the event.

In crafting an agreement with Race On, Rawlings-Blake's administration created a "lockbox" provision to guarantee the city would be able to obtain the 10 percent admissions and amusement tax levied on each ticket. The new team also paid a $300,000 fee for city services and a $50,000 donation to the surrounding neighborhood associations in May, according to mayoral spokesman Ryan O'Doherty.

Last year's group was billed $750,000 for city services, although much of that was not collected, and paid $100,0000 to be distributed to neighborhood groups.

The city is expected to rack up about $800,000 in charges for police, firefighters, sanitation workers and traffic directors for the race, O'Doherty said, adding that the city pays for such services for other major events, such as Artscape and the African American Festival.

O'Doherty urged residents of the city and surrounding counties to visit downtown Baltimore this weekend, whether or not they plan to attend the race.

"Starting on Friday morning and continuing throughout the weekend, downtown traffic will lighten significantly and citizens and visitors from surrounding counties are encouraged to enjoy all the festivities and restaurants downtown and in surrounding neighborhoods," he said.