Grand Prix of Baltimore canceled through 2015, and likely beyond

Speeding race car tires may have blackened Baltimore's streets for the last time, as Grand Prix of Baltimore organizers announced Friday that calendar conflicts have doomed the event for the next two years.

Event organizer Race On LLC's top official called any reprise in later years "an uphill battle into the wind."

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said that "there are no conversations going on about" a 2016 Grand Prix.

"Everyone wanted the race to continue," said JP Grant, whose Race On LLC revived the event in 2012 after its original organizers became mired in financial difficulties. "The sheer number of calendar obligations that had to be reconciled could not be overcome. … The calendar conspired against us."

Holding the event on Labor Day weekend for its fourth and fifth consecutive years in 2014 and 2015 was already ruled out because of an Ohio State-Navy football game previously scheduled at M&T; Bank Stadium next year and an American Legion convention the year after. City leaders, tourism officials and Race On then attempted to broker an alternative that meshed with the schedules for city conventions, the Orioles and Ravens, and IndyCar and Le Mans racing, but none could be found, they said.

That forced the decision, they said, disappointing local organizers and tourism leaders as well as racing officials and drivers, given that attendance rose to 152,000 for the 2013 race, up from 131,000 a year earlier, though that's still below the 160,000 in the event's first year. Some city residents, meanwhile, said they were overjoyed to escape the traffic disruptions and prison-like course barriers the event brings.

Organizers said they looked for openings from June through August, but with each alternative, there was a hitch. The weekend of next June 21, for example, could have worked for IndyCar, but would have required buying out a convention and also ended up conflicting with an Orioles homestand when the team's 2014 schedule was released this week, city officials said.

Dates in August conflicted with major annual conventions, including Otakon and the Firehouse Expo, Visit Baltimore CEO Tom Noonan said. Asking any convention to move locations or dates would have been tricky, especially within a year of the event, he said.

Rawlings-Blake spun that predicament into a positive — evidence of busy tourism seasons ahead. The Grand Prix showcased Baltimore to the country and world, potentially opening up new opportunities like the 2024 Olympics, for which a Washington, D.C.-based group is preparing a bid.

"This is where we want to be as a city," said Rawlings-Blake, citing the busy calendar of summer events that made rebooking the event impossible. "We are a victim of our own success."

It wasn't until recent days that it became clear to organizers they would have to cancel. As recently as Wednesday, the mayor gave no indication that the race would be called off. In response to a question about the race during a weekly meeting with reporters, the mayor emphasized the opportunity the Grand Prix provided to showcase the city.

"When we can show the country and the world we can put on big events, we're opening up the door to more opportunities," she said. "People in the world of tourism, when they're looking for a venue, they're saying, 'Baltimore is in the game. Baltimore is an option.'"

Baltimore sank at least $7 million into the event — the cost for the road improvements needed for the first race in 2011 — and that doesn't count the cost of city services used to support the race. City officials estimate that the Grand Prix generated $130 million in economic impact over three years, bringing in thousands of out-of-town visitors.

Meanwhile, many city residents and businesspeople who have had to live and work around the race, including days of road closures and weeks of hulking concrete and metal barriers around downtown streets, said they were happy to see it go.

"It really destroys the core of the city for everybody for a month," said Fred Scharmen, an architecture instructor at Morgan State University.

Scharmen said he attended the event in its first year and enjoyed it, but would rather see a more family-oriented event that imposes less on city life replace of the Grand Prix.

"Most of the people I know just write off that entire chunk of the city for the weekend," he said.

That was evident in the reactions of some Inner Harbor business owners, who showed little disappointment over the event's likely end.

"Overall, it was probably a good thing for the city, but for us specifically on Labor Day weekend, it has hurt us," said Sarah Conlin, area director for J. Paul's, a restaurant in the Inner Harbor's Light Street Pavilion. "The numbers don't lie, and it keeps the locals away from the harbor on what used to be our second-busiest weekend of the year."

Ed Prutzer, general manager of the Rusty Scupper, said he is sad to see the race go, despite the challenges customers had getting to the restaurant.

"It was a great thing for the city," Prutzer said. "My thought was it would always continue to get better from year to year."

The cancellation saddened those who experienced the event from inside the barriers — the drivers.

"It's disappointing to me, because it's a place where I've had so much success and a race that has been a real turning point in our season the last few years," said Simon Pagenaud, winner of the 2013 IndyCar race. "It's a shame. It's a great city that I enjoy coming to."

Marc Bunting, a Monkton resident who drove in the American Le Mans Series races in each of the event's three years, said he wasn't surprised, but was still disappointed. He acknowledged the divided opinions over the race.

"I believe it definitely made a significant economic impact," Bunting said. "But at the same time, it was a big inconvenience to the folks who live and work downtown. It was a double-edged sword that way."

Some expressed hope that they would speed down the streets of Baltimore again.

"I'd hate to think this means you couldn't bring it back," said Mike Levitas, owner of TPC racing in Jessup, who drove his Porsche racer in the IMSA GT3 Cup Challenge at this year's Grand Prix. "I think it's a real blow to Maryland, because all I've heard from people is that they absolutely loved it."

IndyCar officials lamented the loss of the event.

"After a successful visit to Baltimore, which included record attendance, we are disappointed that our schedules will not align to host an event in 2014," said Mark Miles, CEO of IndyCar parent Hulman & Co., in a statement. "We are thankful to the city of Baltimore, Race On and Andretti Sports Marketing for their support and enthusiasm for the event over the years."

Orioles and Ravens officials declined to comment.

The decision to cancel the Grand Prix comes after a turbulent history. When city officials signed off in 2010 on the event, a year of traffic-snarling road work to ready streets for the race cars followed. Controversy erupted over the removal of trees along the race course in 2011. The race's original organizer, Baltimore Racing Development, lost its contract with the city at the end of 2011 for failure to pay $1.5 million owed to the city, among $12 million in debts it held.

Grant's Race On group revived the event from uncertainty in 2012, pulling together the second edition in a matter of months but failing to secure a title sponsor and losing money. On Friday, Grant acknowledged that the event remained unprofitable in 2013 but said it was on track to make money within the next few years.

Race On had been in "pretty advanced discussions" with several companies in the consumer products, racing and finance industries considering title sponsorship for the 2014 event, Grant said.

Those talks will now be abandoned, but not for lack of effort, he said: "You just don't give up on an event like this."

Baltimore Sun reporters Childs Walker and Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.

Baltimore Grand Prix 2013 news from The Baltimore Sun

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