A lot of people seem to be surprised when they find out that I'm a lifelong auto racing fan. The truth be told I'm not sure exactly when or how it happened, but as long as I can remember I've always been fascinated with the sport especially the cars and drivers that compete annually in the Indianapolis 500, the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing." There has always been something special to me about those sleek machines whipping around the famed rounded rectangle in Speedway, Indiana, the little town surrounded by Indianapolis that is the home of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where the Indy 500 celebrated its centennial in 2011.

I remember building plastic models of these race cars as a child, among the first of those a replica of the J. C. Agajanian Willard Battery Special that Parnelli Jones drove to victory in the 1963 Indy 500 race, when I would have just turned seven years old. It was one of the last times we would see the old front-engine roadster style cars in victory lane at Indy; in fact that year we saw the first of the rear-engine cars come in second a Lotus-Ford driven by Scotland's Jim Clark, part of the so-called "British Invasion" that affected the auto racing world as well as popular music. I bought numerous racing fan magazines from the news stand at the drug store, and used to listen to the radio broadcasts of the Indy 500 on my transistor radio (the 1960s version of the iPod), and watch the tape-delayed television broadcasts later in the evening on ABC.

The only time I actually had a chance to see Indy cars in person was in 1972 when I was living in Indiana. My late uncle Will and aunt Betty lived in Indianapolis, and uncle Will had worked for Champion Spark Plugs for years. He attended the Indianapolis 500 every year, and had full-access passes as a function of his association with Champion Spark Plugs. One day in May my family was visiting them, and Will suggested that the two of us go over to the speedway, where qualifying was taking place for the 500. Of course I was thrilled by the prospect, so off we went. After we got to the track, we walked over to the pit area, and my uncle was pointing out famous racing people of the time to me. But the most amazing thing was seeing, and hearing in person for the first time, those cars! Turn your head all the way to the right, and then whip it all the way to the left as fast as you can that's what it's like watching an Indy car from pit lane screaming down the front straightaway at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. And nothing in my life had prepared me for the sound. Qualifying runs at Indy, then and now, take place with just one car on the track, and as a car came through turn four onto the front straightaway, a high-pitched whine grew quickly louder, building into a high-decibel roar that you could feel through your whole body, passing in an instant, decreasing in pitch and volume as the car approached turn one and disappeared. Television broadcasts do the sound no justice it is astonishing in person, and I can't even imagine what it sounds like at the start of the Indy 500 when 33 cars roar by at once, although I'd like to eventually find out.

Fast forward to early in 2010 when I first heard of the possibility that an IndyCar race might be coming to Baltimore, to be run on a temporary street course downtown, past the Inner Harbor and around the Orioles ballpark at Camden Yards, literally no more than a mile from my front door in the Mount Vernon neighborhood. The idea had been hatched several years earlier in the minds of some racing fans and business people, eventually being pitched to local and state politicians whose support they would need, and morphed into a company called Baltimore Racing Development, who gained the support of former IndyCar driver Al Unser, Jr. in pitching the idea to the IZOD IndyCar Series. The IndyCars had been without an event on the East Coast for several years, and Baltimore's location seemed an ideal location which could draw fans from up and down the entire U.S. eastern seaboard and beyond.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

Baltimore's new mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (pictured left), along with the entire Baltimore City Council; and the Governor of the State of Maryland, Martin O'Malley, himself a popular former mayor of Baltimore; all got behind the project, despite none of them particularly being racing fans themselves. What appealed to them was the prospect of projecting to the world a new, positive, and exciting picture of Baltimore, whose reputation was far better known from the gritty crime scenes depicted on such television shows as The Wire, and Homicide: Life on the Street. In May of 2010 the City of Baltimore signed a five-year commitment to host the IndyCar Series in the Baltimore Grand Prix, agreeing to spend as much as $7.75 million in street repairs necessary to prepare a safe race course for cars which would reach speeds approaching 180mph down Pratt Street, the course's long straightaway where the start-finish line would be located, and to prepare a pit lane adjacent to the old railroad warehouse at Camden Yards. Ultimately the course and other improvements came in about $1.2 million under budget, and most of those funds came from federal stimulus dollars designated for road repairs only those funds could not have been used for any other purpose.

There was a lot of griping and grousing in the local media in the lead-up to this inaugural event, mainly attributable to the inconvenience of local commuters faced with the road work in the months preceding ironically, road work which would have been necessary anyway even in the absence of the Baltimore Grand Prix, but which was accomplished sooner rather than later as a result of it. The coverage in The Baltimore Sun and elsewhere was almost universally slanted towards the negative, as though hoping the event would be a huge failure. Incredibly, a long-time journalist and commentator for Baltimore's NPR affiliate went on the air in the weeks immediately preceding the event with the assertion that Baltimore was spending $100 million on the race, and when challenged on his outrageous exaggeration refused to issue a retraction or apology. But the local residents of the downtown neighborhood were excited by the prospects, and a host of hotels and other businesses in the downtown district were almost completely on-board with the idea. Five major hotels in the downtown area immediately adjacent or enclosed by the proposed race course were co-sponsors, fully aware of what an expected 100,000-plus visitors to Baltimore would do for their room occupancy during an otherwise historically slow Labor Day weekend. Bars and restaurants in the area would see a dramatic surge in business.

Races on temporary street courses in the IndyCar Series have a long history, but there is no guarantee that an individual event will be profitable for the organizers, sponsors, and series to become a long lasting, regular event on the schedule. Currently the longest-lasting temporary street course race for open-wheel cars in the U.S. is the Grand Prix of Long Beach in California, which began in 1975 as a Formula 5000 race. The following year it became a Formula 1 race until 1984, when it became a CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) event, which was the Indy car series at the time. That lasted through the split between CART and IRL (Indy Racing League the new formula begun by former Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO Tony George in 1996 to try and control the spiraling costs of competition in CART and increase the sport's affordability to racing teams). Following the merger between CART and IRL in 2008, the Grand Prix of Long Beach became an IZOD IndyCar Series event which has continued to the present day, drawing 200,000+ spectators each year, and has become the single largest event each year for Long Beach. It's probably no coincidence that Al Unser, Jr., who won more races at Long Beach than any other driver, was enlisted as a consultant by the planners of the Baltimore Grand Prix.

Profits and financial data for an event like this will always be somewhat difficult to ascertain due to the fact that most of the principals involved are privately held entities. The Economic Impact Report delivered by Baltimore Racing Development on May 3, 2010 states that:

"Over a four day period, the Grand Prix, will bring over 100,000 visitors to the City of Baltimore. The spending by these visitors is expected to generate $70 million infusion to the economy of Baltimore and Maryland in the first year. With the indirect costs and induced costs (the Multiplier Effect), this represents $119 million into the regional economy and over $6 million in tax revenues each year."

The Baltimore Convention Center would serve as host for an incredible indoor paddock the garage area for the racing teams giving fans an almost unprecedented up-close and personal view of the cars and their mechanics working to perfect their setups. Not even the hallowed Gasoline Alley of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway gives fans this sort of access. There the teams work in enclosed garage areas off-limits to spectator access except at a distance, and if the teams want privacy all they have to do is close the garage door. In Baltimore everything would be out and in the open, right next to the dozens of team haulers parked in the vast expanse of the Baltimore Convention Center exhibit halls.

Baltimore Grand Prix track map

Over the course of the summer of 2010, as plans progressed, additional racing series came on board as well. Now it was not just only an IZOD IndyCar Series event, but the entire "Road to Indy" support series, including the Firestone Indy Lights, Cooper Tires USF2000 Series, and Star Mazda Series would participate in racing events during the weekend. And in a major coup towards attracting a completely different class of motorsports enthusiasts, it was announced that the exotic prototypes and sports cars of the American Le Mans Series would also participate. The actual race track design went through several revisions before finally settling on a 2.04 mile course, the layout of which was overseen by Martyn Thake of Motorsports Consulting Services, who actually moved the headquarters of his business from Denver, Colorado to Baltimore in order to concentrate on the track design and implementation.

Incorporating 12 turns and two chicanes, and a mixed concrete and asphalt track surface, the fastest part of the course would be the long eastbound straightaway down Pratt Street past the Baltimore Convention Center, which terminates in a harrowing 120-degree turn 1 onto Light Street. A long, sweeping turn 2 runs south past the Light Street Pavilion of Harborplace down to the Maryland Science Center where the hairpin turn 3 turns the cars 180-degrees and back north along the opposite lanes of Light Street to a left-hand turn 4 at Conway Street. Proceeding west past the Hyatt Regency and Sheraton hotels, and the south side of the Convention Center, a chicane at turns 5 and 6 slows the cars before the entrance to pit road. A left-hand turn 7 takes them south again past the east side of Camden Yards, where they circle clockwise around the ballpark beginning at turn 8 along the stadium parking lots into another right-hand turn 9 which takes the cars northbound along the west side of the Camden Yards complex. At the north end of the ballpark a sweeping 45-degree right-hand turn 10 leads the cars towards the Hilton hotel at turn 11, a 45-degree left-hander, and then into the 90-degree right-hand turn 12 back onto Pratt Street. An artificial curb-chicane just past the exit of turn 12 was put into place in order to slow the cars over the light rail tracks at Howard Street before they accelerate down the front stretch.

Baltimore Grand Prix Light Street barriers construction

Following the completion of required street repairs in the summer of 2011, the actual construction of the track itself was a massive undertaking that took four weeks, most of it at night in order to minimize the disruption to downtown traffic. Safety dictates that you cannot race on a temporary street course without barriers in place to protect the spectators from an errant race car. Martyn Thake's Motorsports Consulting Services company has a long history with this sort of project, having designed and installed temporary street courses and many permanent facilities as well around the world in support of various racing series. Their team of locally hired construction workers were responsible for installing the barriers and catch fencing along both sides of the course.

The concrete barrier walls are a modular, pre-fabricated design, the pieces of which lock securely into place when the catch fencing is added to them. A total of 2,200 sections of barrier wall, each weighing 9,300 pounds, had to be installed around the course that's nearly 20.5 million pounds of temporary concrete walls. Into the vertical holes in each section of barrier wall are installed the prefabricated sections of welded steel mesh catch fencing, which interlock at each termination with the insertion of a long piece of galvanized steel pipe that locks the sections securely together. The catch fencing is rounded inwards towards the track at its top in order to avert the possibility of an airborne car contacting the fence which sometimes happens in IndyCar and other racing from launching any further upwards and possibly into spectators. In addition to the barriers and catch fencing, temporary spectator grandstands had to be constructed, more than any other temporary street course on the IndyCar Series circuit, totaling 27,000 seats, which completely sold out. Various other VIP viewing areas, including the Light Street Terrace where I was located trackside for the event, also sold out. Plus, numerous hospitality suites available for corporate sponsors were located at prime viewing locations along the course, and were heavily utilized.

There were actually three layers of fencing when the entire layout was completed and ready for race weekend. The innermost layer of concrete barriers and catch fencing immediately surrounding the race track itself is designed to contain the race cars to the course. But for the safety of both spectators and race car drivers you can't have spectators directly next to that barrier. The mesh of the catch fencing is large enough that someone could stick their arm through and have it ripped off should a race car get too close to the barrier, or worse, actually launch into it. Plus, you never know when someone might decide to throw something onto the race surface that could endanger a car and driver. So there is what is known as a no-man's land about 10-15 feet wide between the catch fence and the spectator fence a light-duty chain-link fence inside of which only race officials, security personnel, and credentialed media photographers are allowed. Surrounding the entire event was yet another fence called the pay line, beyond which only ticketed patrons could venture, with the exception of those who either live or are employed within the race course.

Complicating the completion of the course and the beginning of the event was the arrival in the northeastern U.S. of Hurricane Irene, the dire predictions for which prompted the dismantling of various sections of catch fencing which could have been damaged in a worst case scenario. As it turned out, Irene was downgraded to tropical storm status before it hit the Baltimore region, and while it dumped a lot of rain on already saturated ground, the winds were not nearly as strong as earlier predictions, and flooding did not pose a problem in Baltimore Inner Harbor. However, quite a bit of dismantled fence did have to be restored, delaying opening day track activities on Friday, September 2, by about four hours.



Copyright 2017 by Rich Lauver - Baltimore - Maryland - USA