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THE 2013 GRAND PRIX OF BALTIMORE

INTRODUCTION

DAY 1 FRIDAY, AUGUST 30, 2013

DAY 2 SATURDAY, AUGUST 31, 2013

DAY 3 SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 1, 2013

     


INTRODUCTION TO THE FAREWELL

On Labor Day weekend in 2013 Baltimore hosted the third annual Grand Prix of Baltimore, which seems likely to be the final installment of a race almost universally embraced by IndyCar and ALMS fans lucky enough to have attended any of the three years it existed. As a long time resident of Baltimore's Mount Vernon neighborhood just a mile to the north of the downtown area in which the race took place, and a life long fan of IndyCar racing, I certainly attended and embraced it all three years, and I'm disappointed and anguished by the prospect of it not returning anytime soon, if at all. But circumstances have conspired against it for 2014 and 2015, specifically an Ohio State vs Navy football game scheduled for the same weekend in 2014 at M&T Bank Stadium, home of the Baltimore Ravens, and a week long convention booked into the Baltimore Convention Center in 2015 by the American Legion.

The Grand Prix of Baltimore has had, by necessity, a very large footprint in the downtown Baltimore area. The race circuit was 2.04 miles around, winding past the beautiful Inner Harbor area and circling around the Camden Yards stadium of the Baltimore Orioles baseball team, with the paddock area for IndyCar teams located inside the convention center. It was a spectacular and unique street course that proved to be extremely challenging, with changes from concrete to asphalt pavement, and a troublesome light rail crossing just past the beginning of the long main straightaway. Those railroad tracks forced the installation of a curb chicane to force cars to slow down before crossing the tracks. Otherwise they had a tendency to launch themselves into the air several feet, which caused a lot of damage to a lot of cars. The chicane wasn't really a problem it was a feature!

But the light rail tracks didn't doom the Grand Prix of Baltimore. Instead, a series of events and circumstances converged that ultimately led to a great event's demise. At the inaugural event in 2011 everything seemed to point towards the beginning of a great new annual event for Baltimore, IndyCar, and the American LeMans Series. The race's initial organizer, Baltimore Racing Development, had a great idea and the best of intentions, and the event they put on in 2011 was a smashing success and extremely well done from the standpoint of racing fans, the participating series teams and drivers. With an estimated attendance that first year of 160,000 fans, the Baltimore Grand Prix (as it was called that first year) was the second most attended event of the IndyCar schedule behind the Indianapolis 500 itself, which had long claimed to be the largest single day sports event in the world. It was spectacular.

And then the bottom dropped out. As it turned out, even though the organizers put on a great event, from a financial standpoint they didn't know what they were doing, and left unpaid bills to the city and state (since repaid) which led to their contract with Baltimore being cancelled. The future of the 2012 race hung in the balance, and a couple of false starts from new potential organizers which looked promising failed before they got to the starting line. When it seemed as though the Baltimore Grand Prix was doomed to be a "one and done" event on the IndyCar schedule, in stepped IndyCar legend Michael Andretti and his company Andretti Sports Marketing, and local financier J. P. Grant, who teamed up together to save the day.

In little more than 90 days before Labor Day weekend in 2012, the event was put together and staged once again, albeit to somewhat smaller attendance than the year before, understandable given the uncertainty and minimal time for promotion. Now it was billed as the Grand Prix of Baltimore, and it had a presenting sponsor for the first time, Chrysler's SRT (Street and Racing Technology) division, who remained through 2013. While a presenting sponsor is a good thing, it's not as good as a title sponsor, which carries with it a greater level of financial backing and despite everyone's best efforts a title sponsor was still lacking for the 2013 event.

Worse still, despite vocal support from Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Councilman William Cole who represents the downtown district in which the event was held, there was equally vocal and sustained opposition from a wide spectrum of downtown residents and business owners who didn't seem to care about the financial impact generated by an event that added an estimated $130,000,000 to the regional economy over the course of three years. The opposition seemed more concerned with the traffic congestion created by several weeks of course construction and road closures surrounding the race weekends, and the noise of the actual event itself. To the credit of Andretti Sports Marketing, the construction of the race course was cut to only 21 days for the 2013 event, cutting an entire week from the previous year's schedules.

Ultimately what doomed the Grand Prix of Baltimore was IndyCar's controversial desire to conclude the 2014 season by Labor Day weekend itself, reportedly so that the end of the season would not interfere with the NFL season. A weekend later in September certainly could have been found to host it, but that wasn't even on the table. An earlier date might have been possible were it not for the major supporting series the United SportsCar Racing Series (which merges the American LeMans Series and the Rolex GrandAm Series beginning in 2014) being unavailable due to the 24 Hours of LeMans race. The 2014 IndyCar schedule will feature fewer races and venues, and more of the "double header" events that put such a strain on drivers and crews forced to compete in two back to back events in a single weekend.

The political will from Mayor Rawlings-Blake, and the financial support from J. P. Grant, seem to have both evaporated now to the point where it will be nearly impossible for the Grand Prix of Baltimore to come back in 2016 or beyond. The message from Andretti Sports Marketing seems to be more along the lines of never say never, Michael Andretti saying "hopefully one day we will be back." Whether or not IndyCar ever returns to Baltimore, IndyCar itself has much bigger problems. The recent revolving door of top IndyCar executives has done nothing to provide any sort of consistent leadership to the series, despite their best intentions.

Title sponsor IZOD itself a rather curious choice for a racing series has not exactly been the type of champion that IndyCar deserves, and while their contract had been scheduled to expire at the end of the 2015 season, joint announcements on September 27, 2013 announced the end of that partnership. IZOD had reportedly been in discussions for some time with IndyCar trying to get out of their contract early a deal that has been worth over $10 million a year to IndyCar in direct sponsorship and activation, although the activation part of that has been seriously lacking in recent years. Wireless provider Verizon and tire supplier Firestone have often mentioned as possibilities to fill the financial sponsorship gap that IZOD's departure leaves, and either would certainly make more sense than a clothing manufacturer, but discussions like that are very closely held. Automotive giants Honda and Chevrolet seem committed to the series, but neither could conceivably become a title sponsor since they are in direct competition as engine manufacturers within the series itself.

What is needed for IndyCar is a concerted effort to expand the visibility and accessibility of the series in the public eye. The level of competition this year in IndyCar has been nothing short of spectacular, with 10 different winners in the first 16 races, including four first-time winners. The product itself is exciting and compelling, with a likable cast of drivers and team owners. But despite 102 years of American open-wheel racing the sport doesn't have the sort of connection with the American public that, say, NASCAR enjoys. A more equitable balance between oval tracks and the road and street circuits would certainly help, as would expansion into more venues with more races, instead of contraction into fewer. But that takes sponsorship dollars, and unless people are actually going to the races or watching them on TV, those dollars are hard to come by.

Were it not for the continued efforts of titanic IndyCar teams like those of Roger Penske, Michael Andretti, and Chip Ganassi, and smaller teams like KV Racing, Rahal Letterman Lanigan, and others, IndyCar would have closed up shop years ago. Despite years of cost-cutting measures designed to allow more teams to compete in the IndyCar series, there are still barely enough cars entered to fill the traditional 33 car field for the Indy 500.

It's a challenge for me to remain a cheerleader with so many factors working against the IndyCar series, but someone has to, and I shouldn't have to be in the minority of its fans in doing so. I'm appalled by many of the comments I read in newspapers and online blogs from so-called fans who still seem to be fighting the CART/IRL split from the mid-1990s, the later bankruptcy of CART and it's absorption into IRL to form the IndyCar Series, and seemingly endless griping and grousing over every aspect of the sport. There are certainly big problems to address in IndyCar, but deriding it for the sake of old rivalries seems counterproductive if you truly love IndyCar racing.

While I'm still lamenting the loss of the Grand Prix of Baltimore, not only for my own sake, but for Baltimore's sake and IndyCar's sake as well, my passion for IndyCar racing remains strong, and I believe that the series will maintain the painfully slow growth it seems to be on the path towards, despite an admittedly less than optimal 2014 schedule. Instead of walking a mile downtown from my apartment to see my friends compete, my plan is to attend the Pocono IndyCar 500 next year, and hopefully I'll eventually make it to see an actual Indy 500 sometime in the future.

CONTINUE TO DAY 1 AUGUST 30, 2013

     


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