Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Baltimore Grand Prix - Charm City Turns It Up.

Baltimore, MD –

As a child growing up in suburban Maryland near Baltimore, I always wondered what it would be like to have a race on the streets of Charm City. Just a few years ago, driving home from work along Conway and Light Streets, I had visions of sports cars, winged cars, cars with loud motors and slicks and radical paint schemes, blasting at-speed alongside the curves near the Inner Harbor. A ridiculous notion, I thought: “Race cars? Here?” It’s nice to dream, I figured.

This weekend, those dreams became reality. 

Friday's practice session drew a very large crowd.
For a city well-known for its rough streets – both in the “crumbling infrastructure” sense, as well as the realistic depictions in the great TV show The Wire – Baltimore has long been a city in search of an image makeover. The Orioles are reduced to barely an homage to the good old days, and the Ravens have struggled season after season, now eleven years out from their Super Bowl XXXV victory. This is not lost on Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who has staked her career on the success of this race. There is no room for doubt, either: If the race proves to be a bust for the local economy, she’s a goner. Win or lose, the city and its mayor are all-in.

If the size of the crowd was any indication, the inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix was a success beyond anyone’s wildest expectations – the streets inside and surrounding the 12 turns of the 2.04 mile circuit were packed with racing fans, many of them attending their first auto race of any kind. Those who braved the nightmarish traffic tie-ups to catch a glimpse of the cars, see the drivers, watch the bands playing on the main stage, and generally just enjoy the festival atmosphere, were said to number over 100,000.

We saw nearly that many people on Friday – which was just practice and qualifying events, both of which were delayed for some last-minute preparations and inspections to be completed on the track. The hurried nature of preparing a street course for racing means that manhole covers need to be welded, and even then, as Saturday’s race showed, the welds can break under race friction and send the cast-iron disc skipping across the track. Asphalt curbs were under construction late into Thursday night on several corners as well as the front-stretch chicane.

With the hold-up forcing Friday’s action to be constantly shuffled until late in the day, fans didn’t seem to mind at all. They were having a good time eating crabcakes and hot dogs, enjoying a cold one on Howard Street, and waiting in lines 15 deep at the Danica Patrick trailer to bring home hats, t-shirts and scale models of her #7 Go Daddy car.

When the cars did hit the circuit, the crowds were just as deep at the fences, and the grandstands were literally packed to capacity. Newer fans may not be entirely able to distinguish between Star Mazda or US F2000, or Indy Light to Indy Car, but they all know Danica. Indy’s most bankable driver is headed to NASCAR next year, and much of her fan base will surely follow. Fortunately, IndyCar fans don’t need to look far to find an attractive female driver to support, as young Simona de Silvestro is fast, smart, tough, and having a breakout year in the series. 

Simona De Silvestro at a Sunday morning press conference
While the IndyCar Series was billed by the local media as the “headliner” race on Sunday, the American Le Mans Series really wowed the crowd on Friday and Saturday. Anywhere the series goes, fans are awestruck by the Corvettes, Ferraris, Porsches, and BMWs making up the GT class. The Prototypes are exciting and they still take the overall win, but ask any fan which car he or she would like to drive home, and it’s almost certain to be a GT car. While Steven Kane and Humaid al Masaood took the overall win in the Dyson Racing Mazda-Lola, it was Bryan Sellers and Wolf Henzler’s Falken Tire-sponsored Porsche 911 GT3 that the fans in the stands most wanted for a test drive.
Henzler's Porsche chasing down Corvette
Another exciting draw for the younger fans, were the Star Mazda and US F2000 series, both showcases for drivers mostly in their teens, with open-wheel aspirations to Indy Car and Formula 1. The US F2000 series wrapped up its season at Baltimore, and young Finn Petri Suvanto took honors for both Rookie of the Year and the Series Championship.

If there’s any sour aftertaste left from the weekend, it’s the attitude of some of the local media towards what was clearly a tremendous, successful, and quite stunning event. While some of the news organizations played up the arrival of the Grand Prix as a huge step forward for the city, others took a decidedly dim view – with an eye on influencing the upcoming Mayoral election, no doubt – and decried Rawlings-Blake’s “all-in” approach to getting Baltimore its date on the motorsports calendar, while the rest of the economy is still in the toilet.

Few of those criticisms hold any water: Sure, traffic in the downtown area was a mess. And yes, some businesses in the surrounding areas expected a horde of race fans, only to find that most of them stayed pretty close to the track. Not everybody at the party gets to dance with the prom queen, but those restaurants either located inside the circuit or which had a temporary presence set up close to the track, were swamped with business. Hotels were packed. Parking near the course was hard to find – though not impossible.

Fans enjoyed the action throughout the weekend.
The local citizens, however, were for the most part excited. Did it take moving some public funds around in order to put on the race? Sure. Did it mean new taxes? Absolutely. Was it a huge pain in the ass trying to get around downtown with so many of the streets closed off? Believe it, hon. And for nearly every person on the street I asked, the answer was accompanied with a smile. This is a small, mostly working-class city getting a shot at the big-time, with news coverage extending to Europe, Australia, Asia, and the Middle East. What Baltimore has with the Grand Prix, is an event to be proud of. 

Of course, Baltimore is not the “East coast Long Beach.” It’s far too early to try that one on, and there is quite a bit of room for improvement – in the circuit design and paving, in planning and promotion, in traffic management, and probably half a dozen other nit-picks I could come up with, if only the lingering aromas of tire smoke and Old Bay seasoning didn’t have me wanting to go back for more. For its first run right out of the box, the Baltimore GP was a winner.

That’s it for now; I’ll see you at the next pit stop.


cash4yournotenow said...

Awesome article! I wish I could have been there.

Anonymous said...

wow!!! great article! very well written