Families, racing fans flock downtown for Grand Prix action

Race cars whipped around downtown Baltimore on Saturday, turning usually traffic-choked streets into a speedway, their engines filling the air with the sounds of a hornet's hum on the straights and a smoker's cackle at the hairpin turn.

As the cars negotiated the two mile course's first turn from Pratt Street onto Light Street during morning warm-ups, spectators lounged in the grandstands or pressed against the barriers, many with cameras in hand trying to freeze the action in a snapshot.

"We got a few," said Derek Corneliusen, 46. "It's a little tricky in between two fences."

By 11:30, there were already long lines at many of the entrance gates as spectators waited to get in for the second day of the Grand Prix of Baltimore. Jarred Martus of Laurel surprised his sons — Keaton Martus, 10, and Aaron Thomas, 8 — with tickets to the race, but he regretted not bringing earplugs for the boys.

Martus said finding a few pairs was proving difficult. Keaton, meanwhile, said he was amped for the race, while Aaron, bothered by the noise, used his fingers to plug his ears.

"I wanted to see all the racers and what kind of cars they had," Keaton added.

One hall in the Baltimore Convention Center had been transformed into a hangar-like mechanics' shop with shining team trucks parked in neat rows. Phil Singh of Vienna, Va., and Ben Zoghbi of Great Falls, Va., gathered around the Indy Lights cars inside the paddock as the machines came off the track, their tires still warm.

The men said the technology behind the fast cars in such small packaging was fascinating to them.

"It's amazing, the speed that they can go," Zoghbi said.

Off the course, the specialized cars, some of which reach speeds of 180 miles an hour, suffer the indignity of being towed into position behind a slow-moving cart. But the slower pace gave spectators a chance to get up close with the cars and snap yet more pictures.

"This is the best!" said Vincent Gustitus of Harrisburg, Pa., sounding more like a young boy than the 57-year-old he is. "These are the big boys," he said as the IndyCars rolled by.

Gustitus was at the Grand Prix to celebrate his 32nd anniversary with his wife Alice Gustitus, 51. (To make it even, she got theater tickets, he added.)

Vincent Gustitus said he is not a huge racing fan, but is considering coming back next year.

"It's not often you see a car go down Pratt at 180," he said.

Down in the Pit Lane during the final minutes of qualifying for the next day's Grand Prix race, the detritus from both the Indy cars and American Le Mans Series vehicles left a sense of barely ordered chaos. Sweating Baltimore City firefighters wandered around, ready should anything catch alight.

Lucille Dust, a former TV assistant for the races, has kept coming back despite no longer working for the series. She lingered near the pit for Sunday's pole position driver Scott Dixon, watching his progress and gossiping about his rivalry with Will Power, who will start second.

"I come out and watch the cars, the strategy," Dust said. "We're a family here."

Away from the action, vendors sold all of types of junk food at stands around the course: cheese steaks, funnel cakes, hot dogs and pizza. A full service bar offered mixed drinks while one man sold Natty Bohs from an ice chest he carried on his shoulder.

Custodians in bright yellow shirts patrolled the streets for litter, and uniformed police were watching from posts throughout the grandstands. Police reported no major incidents as of Saturday afternoon.

Christian Tornkvist and the boys from a couple of local Boy Scouts troops shouted over the Pratt Street buzz Saturday to hawk Cow Tales and caramels. The Scouts are trying to raise cash to help send underprivileged boys to camp.

Last year, they raised a few thousand dollars selling programs and earplugs, Tornkvist's mother, Lori, said. "The kids just love it," she said. "They get to experience something new."

Christian, 15, said he'd love the thrill of racing one of the fast cars, and his mom said she wouldn't stand in his way.

"I tell my kids, 'You get a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, you take it,'" Lori Tornkvist said.

But if that chance comes for Christian, it will have to wait a few months, at least until he gets his driver's permit.



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